Sunday, August 12, 2012

Choi Min-sik - A Man of Many Moments

While actors like Song Kang-ho may be more prolific, and Lee Byung-hun may be more idolized, chances are if you speak to somebody from the western world and they’ve seen a Korean movie, the conversation will almost certainly (with very little variation, I’ve had it many times myself) go like this – “So there was a crazy movie were this guy eats a live octopus, then later he beats up a heap of people with a hammer, then the ending….the ending is just insane!”

Of course to anyone even slightly initiated with the world of Korean cinema, the movie being described is of course 2003’s ‘OldBoy (올드보이)’, and that “guy” who’s being referred to is Oh Dae-su, the character played by Choi Min-sik.  ‘OldBoy’, debatably even more so than ‘Shiri (쉬리)’, which came 4 years before & in which he also starred, along with the previously mentioned Song Kang-ho, is probably the biggest breakout Korean movie so far.  Audiences in America, the UK, & Australia all became familiar with the second of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy through strong word of mouth, mainly involving those scenes that everyone talks about, and glowing reviews from film critics, making Choi Min-sik’s rather large head instantly recognizable to many people who normally wouldn’t know Jet Li from Bruce Lee.

However equally as entertaining as ‘OldBoy’, all be it in a much less shocking manner, is the story of Choi Min-sik himself.  Born in 1962, Min-sik had a rough start to life when, while in third grade, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and told nothing could be done for him.  However he refused to give up, and after an extended stay in the mountains, he came back cured and healthy.

Initially a stage actor, Min-sik broke into the movies at the age of 27 in 1989 with roles in a handful of productions, including the early efforts by director Park Jong-won ‘Kuro Arirang’ and ‘Our Twisted Hero’, as well as various TV dramas.  He finally got a sizeable role in Song Neung-han’s ‘No. 3 (넘버 3)’ as a tough talking cop in 1997, and also starred in Kim Ji-woon’s debut movie ‘The Quiet Family (조용한 가족)’, which was itself remade in Japan by Miike Takashi in 2001 as ‘The Happiness of the Katakuris’.

It was in 1999 that Min-sik could be considered to have gotten his first major role which won him recognition, which ironically enough was in the movie that also happened to be the first Korean production to become well known overseas as well as domestically, and that movie was ‘Shiri’.  Playing a North Korean agent operating in the South with the plan to blow up Seoul, he brought an intensity to the role that, even now when the action scenes have become rather dated, still make the movie a very watchable experience.  It wasn’t only the audiences that noticed, as the role also brought him the Best Actor award at the 1999 domestic Grand Bell Awards.

Min-sik found himself busy for the next few years, landing starring roles in the movies ‘Happy End (해피 엔드)' , ‘Failan (파이란)’ (opposite Hong Kong actress Cecilia Cheung), and ‘Strokes of Fire (취화선)’.  In 2003 he starred in ‘OldBoy’, an adaptation of a Japanese manga of the same name, and an unrelated follow-up to director Park Chan-wook’s ‘Sympathy for Mr Vengenance (복수는 나의 것)’.  While all of the movies he’d starred in so far were solid efforts, the release of ‘OldBoy’ saw Min-sik’s popularity go through the roof, both in Korea and as his face became familiar to overseas audiences, all be it most tended to remember it with a few tentacles slithering over his cheeks.

Choi followed it up with the lighthearted romp ‘Spring Time (꽃피는 봄이 오면)’, before starring alongside Ryoo Seung-beom in Ryoo Seung-wan’s boxing drama ‘Crying Fist (주먹이 운다)’, in which he plays a down & out boxer fighting to get back his respect & family.  In 2005 he returned to darker territory with a role in the third & final installment of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, ‘Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨)’, in which he plays a child murderer.  Although only a small role, he certainly leaves his mark, which is just as well because 2005 also marked the beginning of his 5 year self-imposed exile from movie making.

Done in protest against the governments decision to drastically reduce the Screen Quotas Korean movies would get as part of the Free Trade Agreement with the US, Min-sik even went so far as to return the prestigious Okgwan Order of Cultural Merit which had been given to him, stating, “To halve the screen quota is tantamount to a death sentence for Korean film.  This medal, once a symbol of pride, is now nothing more than a disgrace, and it is with a heavy heart that I must return it.”  The protests took place in Seoul as well as at that years Cannes Film Festival, and his actions saw him make a return to his theatrical roots, starring in only one movie during the whole period which was the Tibet shot ‘Himalaya, Where the Wind Dwells (히말라야, 바람이 머무는 )’ in 2008, in which he was the only Korean actor amongst a cast comprised completely of local Tibetan actors.

Eventually the dust settled, & in 2010 he returned to the screen with a bang, or rather a murderous roar, in Kim Ji-woon’s ‘I Saw the Devil (악마를 보았다)’.  The second time the pair had worked together, ‘I Saw the Devil’ is about as far away from the comedic ‘The Quiet Family’ as you can get, as he plays a psychotic serial killer with a vicious sadistic streak.  Some reviewers criticized the movie for its level of ultra-violence, while others seemed to celebrate it, but one thing every review had in common was praise for Min-sik’s portrayal as the greasy psychopath up against Lee Byung-hun’s revenge seeking cop.

2011 saw him keeping up the good work, as he appeared on the screen not once but twice, all be it one was only as a voice-over on the animated feature ‘Leafie, A Hen into the Wild (마당을 나온 암탉)’, which became the highest grossing Korean animated feature of all time.  The second one saw Min-sik on familiar ground as an upcoming gangster during the 1980’s Busan in Yoon Jong-bin’s ‘Nameless Gangster (범죄와의 전쟁 : 나쁜놈들 전성시대)’.  In what’s been described as a Korean version of ‘Goodfellas’, Min-sik plays alongside who must surely be the busiest actor in Korea right now, Ha Jeong-woo, in a tale of corruption, double-crosses, and of course, violence.  Min-sik stated in a press interview for the movie that he’d become tired of playing cruel characters, but that the script and story of ‘Nameless Gangster’ were too good to turn down, and indeed the movie was a great success.

Thankfully there is no exile on the horizon, with upcoming roles in gangster drama ‘A New World’ and ‘Battle of Myeongryang, Whirlwind Sea’.  If one thing can be said for Choi Min-sik, it’s that he’s definitely left his mark on Korean cinema.

* For anyone who has yet to experience Choi Min-sik onscreen, both ‘OldBoy’ and ‘Leafie, a Hen into theWild’ will be screening at the 2012 Korean Film Festival in Australia, be sure to check them out.

** If anybody is curious about the montage I used in the middle of this article, this was actually a piece of artwork that a good acquaintance of mine, Bob O’Brien, was recently commissioned to make for Choi Min-sik’s visit to the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival, with the specific purpose of being presented to Min-sik himself.  If you suddenly decide your living room wall seems empty without it, you can order a copy here.


  1. Oh man, that was a beautiful write up man. Wonderful reporting- and fast! I felt like I was there. I love that you jumped in there and were willing to try whatever came your way. I'm really looking forward to your next blog entry Paul. Excellent!

  2. I'm going to Australia to hang out with Paul Bramhall...

  3. Whoops, I posted that in the wrong spot!

    But in regards to THIS post- I thought I knew everything about Choi Min-Sik, but you schooled me further. I'll definitely check out the few films of his that I've missed- you've got me more intrigued.