Attending the group interview of Choi Min-sik at BAFTA was without doubt the highlight of my year. Charming, modest and humorous, Choi was a delight to interview and opened up about his career to date to the assembled Asian film bloggers and writers.
While Choi Min-sik has become inseparable from the iconic vengeful victim Oh Dae-su in OldBoy, he is one of South Korea’s most respected actors with a long career dating back to 1989 when he appeared in Kuro Arirang directed by Park Chong-won. Since, he appeared in some of the most successful South Korean films of all time including Shiri /Swiri (Kang Je-Gyu: 1999) and The Brotherhood of War/Taegukgi (Kang Je-Gyu: 2004) – playing a North Korean ‘anti-hero’ in both. In between these two block-busters, Choi Min-sik took on the role of the legendry nineteenth century painter, Jang Seung-Up, in Im Kwon-taek’s Chihwaseon (2002). Although Choi Min-sik has played some meditative characters, including Kang-jae, a washed up gangster who enters into a marriage of convenience with the beautiful Failan (Cecilia Cheung) in Song Hae-Sung’s 2001 film of the same name, and Choi in Himalaya, Where the Wind Dwells, a white collar executive who finds spiritual enlightenment when delivering the remains of a Nepalese migrant to his family, Choi Min-sik is better known – particularly in the West where he will forever be associated with Oh Dae-su – for his action roles, particularly those that explore the brutal side of human nature.
The Interview (please note that the questions and answers are from the transcribed interview by Paul Quinn of Hangul Celluloid).
I was interested to discover when researching for the group interview that Choi Min-sik had actually taken the script of I Saw the Devil to Kim Jee-woon, which formed the basis of my first question.
Dr. Colette Balmain: I would like to ask a question about I Saw the Devil: I read that you were the one who took the script to director Kim Jee-woon and I wondered what attracted you to it since the character you play has really no redeeming qualities or characteristics at all; it’s a very evil character?
Choi Min-sik: When I first saw the script what I felt was this person could only have been born this way with evil genes. He looks like everyone else but the way he was born and who he became felt incredibly sad to me. However, the victim who had been sacrificed by this utter psychopath and having been embroiled in a huge amount of sadness and anger transformed into a devil that’s even worse than the psychopath; I found that idea and process very interesting – almost a reversal of the origins of violence. I felt that the two characters being gridlocked in these extreme acts as the audience watches the process would also be of interest to those viewers and would in some way contaminate them, in the process, and what lay beyond the acts of violence of the two men played by Lee Byung-hun and myself was what I really found interesting. The violence in I Saw the Devil grows to such an extreme that it almost becomes comedic, in a sense, and objectively watching it you can see members of the audience laughing because they realise it’s so outrageous and I wanted to look at that contamination of violence and violation that takes place. I also wanted to share society being rather overwhelmed with act of violence in the world we live in now, and share the terror and feelings of fear that come with that.
My comments: I found Choi Min-sik’s philosophical response about violence as a form of contamination particularly instructive especially as someone who writes about and teaches extreme cinema. Media panic around violent cinema (and of course video games) for me functions merely as a mechanism through which to divert societal/governmental responsibility from socio-economic issues that impact on the prevalence (and I am not saying that deprivation is the only reason for violence, but that it is a formative one in many cases) of real-life violence. Moral outrage over violent cinema also does not take into account the viewer’s relationship to the screen, or indeed the manner in which violent films such as I Saw The Devil engage the viewer into an act of complicity with that violence by making us aware of the cinematic frame. By doing this, it is our desire to see violence and enjoy that violence that is being foregrounded – in these terms, I Saw The Devil provides a critical commentary on violence rather than a how to do it guide as the press and politicians would have us believe.
(Interestingly enough although we were all trying not to ask Choi Min-sik about Spike Lee’s recently release remake of OldBoy, or indeed specific questions about the original, when I did eventually come around to the topic, Choi Min-sik response was both enthusiastic and illuminating (making me wish that perhaps I had asked the question sooner).
Dr. Colette Balmain: I wanted to ask about Oldboy: When I showed Oldboy to my students, I think it resonated with them more than any other film I’ve ever taught. There’s something in Oldboy that is very Korean but it’s also universal as well – there is something that speaks outside of Korea in a very direct way. Given that and given the remake that’s about to come out, how do you feel about remakes of Korean films? And I know many of my students are horrified that Oldboy is being remade, even by Spike Lee.
Choi Min-sik: Today at lunch, I was at the headquarters of Universal which shot the remake of Oldboy and they had a very “sorry” attitude towards me [Choi Min-sik laughs]. I had huge expectations for the film and to have Josh Brolin, who I consider to be an excellent actor, play my role I felt was extremely positive but when I told them I was full of expectations they replied that I really shouldn’t have high expectations for the film at all. However, I think they were being very modest and I think they were just treating me with according respect as the actor who was in the original film. I am very expectant of how the remake will be, I’m greatly anticipating it and I think it will be very interesting to see how a different culture interprets the story.
My commentary: I really liked this response as I feel exactly the same way about remakes. Yes, they might not work some, or indeed most, of the time but that it can be interesting to see how another culture interprets the same story. And I often argue that a remake can lead a viewer to the original, which for me has to be a win-win solution for everyone involved – even if it is just too say how much better the original is.
My concluding thoughts: Choi Min-sik is one of his generation’s truly great actors – and as Mark Morris pointed out in the Q&A after the screening of Nameless Gangster (my review will follow shortly) – not just of South Korean cinema but of cinema. In person, he is charming and irrepressible and extremely modest for an actor with such an outstanding body of work. It is not often you get to meet a cinematic hero, but thanks to the Korean Cultural Centre UK and BAFTA I did just that. I am still slightly overwhelmed by the experience. Despite masquerading as an academic, I am at heart a fan who cannot believe her luck at what she gets to do for a living.
Thanks to Paul Quinn of Hangul Celluloid for transcribing the interview, which you can find in full here: Choi Min-sik Group Interview
Again thanks to the KCCUK for making this possible.