The following group interview took place at BAFTA in London, on September 26th 2013, prior to the Korean Cultural Centre UK special screening of 'Nameless Gangster' and Q&A with actor Choi Min-sik:
Hangul Celluloid: I’m sure there will be a lot of questions today about specific films but I wanted to start with a more general subject: At the Cannes Film Festival in 2006, you spoke out in protest against changes to Korean cinema screen quotas. Considering the continued focus of Korean film companies on big-budget blockbusters, many would say at the expense of smaller independent films, what are your current thoughts on the health of Korean Cinema today?
Choi Min-sik: That’s a very profound question, right from the beginning of the interview. Questions relating to screen quotas do tend to follow me wherever I go: In relation to the prejudices around film and screen quotas, its intention wasn’t to block foreign films from entering South Korea but to promote diversity in culture - whether they be small independents, art films or screenwriter centred films - and to allow that diversity of films to be seen in cinemas by audiences; that is the purpose of the screen quota, as you may all be aware. However, I felt that due to the wrong policies such as the free trade agreement and pressure from the US, the screen quota to protect Korean film largely disappeared. Therefore screenwriter centred films by directors such as Hong Sang-soo and Kim Ki-duk could no longer be seen. That was a grossly unfair situation from my perspective and as a member of the film industry I felt the need to raise the issue. Then and now, the film industry is virtually owned by the multiplexes etc. and they have a policy of showing films that will make money first and foremost and that’s a policy they follow, almost without exception. That sadly doesn’t change, so the screen quota allows films to be shown that are not only of entertainment value but also of a more serious nature - films looking at what lies below human nature - enabling those films to be shown for a period of time and ensuring that structure remains in place. However, because of the trade policies between the US and Korea, I felt that it was unfair that Korea was placed in a vulnerable position and largely had to give that structure up.
SumGyeoJin Gem: In all of your films, you try to evoke intense emotions and feelings. How do you go about evoking those emotions and do you ever get tired from the number of takes required to secure shots of intense crying or anger?
Choi Min-sik: Of course it’s exhausting [Choi Min-sik laughs]. However, that is what I have to do as my role and regardless of the physical tiredness that comes with that, what’s far more exhausting is the psychological pressure of whether I’m expressing accurately what the director is looking for and wants to have expressed in terms of emotionally. So therefore in the sequence of events I am constantly grappling with the question of whether I’m successfully expressing what’s demanded of me, and that’s something that can be very tiring indeed.
Korean Class Massive: Ha Jung-woo, who also stars in tonight’s film [‘Unnamed Gangster’] has directed his own movie which is being released, called either ‘Rollercoaster’ or ‘Fasten Your Seatbelt’. Are you interested in directing your own film one day?
Choi Min-sik: Being a director brings a lot of headaches. What I’m doing now as an actor is overwhelming enough so looking into becoming a director is not for now, but maybe someday. Actually, when I started working in theatre as an actor, I was interested in moving towards directing in theatre and films, so maybe it might happen at some stage in time to come. However, even now there are so many characters I would like to express and portray.
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.
MiniMiniMovies: I wanted to ask about your theatre acting: As you act in both films and return to the theatre too, what is your selection process? Is it always the script or a well known director, when you get an urge to get back in front of a live audience?
Choi Min-sik: First of all it’s the director. Film is not by the director, that’s a vital point; the director’s intention is the most important thing. In terms of the kind of world the director wants to create and express, if that is in agreement with what I generally think about and what I find worthy as a story to tell, that’s when we’ll work together sometimes to the extent of writing the script together and when there is a mutual agreement I will participate quite actively, in that respect.
Cine_Asie: From a French point of view, you have attended many French festivals; the Lyon Asian Film Festival retrospective in 2008 and Cannes in 2006 where you spoke out in protest against the pressure of the US on the Korean screen quota. Now you are to make a film by a French director, Luc Besson, and I wondered if this will personally be your first international project? And compared to other Korean actors and directors who have moved to working in Hollywood does the fact that you will be working in France where you first spoke out against Hollywood pressure does working with a French director on a French production hold some special symbolism for you?
Choi Min-sik: There’s no specific symbolism or symbolic meaning to my working in France and I don’t particularly dislike or hate Hollywood. The resistance might be in relation to politics or the agreements between countries and that may be very anti-culture but I’m not against the films or the people who work in the film industry. In terms of Luc Besson, I remember watching his early work such as ‘Nikita’ and ‘Leon’ and his later films like ‘The Fifth Element’ and I was very impressed and moved by his directorial style. It seemed that our fates were intertwined when he offered me a role in ‘Lucy’ and I was very interested in the way he works, the system he operates in and the role in film that he has which I very much want to know about. That’s really how I came to participate in the project.
easternKicks: I wanted to ask about the film ‘Chihwaseon’ which was a film that was obviously close to director Im Kwon-taek’s heart; some even say it represents his own career. When you took the role, did you look to him for inspiration on how to play it and generally how was it working with one of Korea’s greatest directors?
Choi Min-sik: Im Kwon-taek is one of the greats in Korea and needless to say he’s been working for many decades – I’m aware that he’s worked for almost 50 years in the film industry and you could say that his entire life is film. So, I wanted to know his word of film and whether his style of film was compatible with mine or not. If I could compare him to a doctor, I almost wanted to get a health check from him by working with him and in front of such a master I kind of wanted to diagnose myself and satisfy my curiosity about the world of film he wanted to express.
Koreaffinity: Im Kwon-taek came to the UK last year, we all met and talked to him and I wondered as you’ve worked with him, Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon, who is the most demanding in terms of specific ways they want you to portray a role; e.g. the eating of the octopus in ‘Oldboy’?
Choi Min-sik: None of the directors you mentioned really made any demands that were overly excessive. The eating of the octopus was actually my idea – at first in ‘Oldboy’, the traditional way of eating it would be to twist it around your chopsticks. However, to portray the psychological state of the character Oh Dae-su that felt insufficient and inappropriate and after being imprisoned for 15 years becoming a primordial being full of anger it felt more appropriate to simply grab it and eat it. So, I suggested that to Park Chan-wook and he accepted it. In another film called ‘Crying Fist’, the last scene is where the two main characters box and I wanted to differentiate the film from other boxing films such as ‘Rocky’ so I and actor Ryoo Seung-beom actually box for real and it’s not created offstage at all. The boxing in ‘Crying Fist’ isn’t about posture or appearances but the boxing scene is in fact an attempt to portray the difficult process of journeying through life. So, I thought “there’s no more shooting to be done and we’re not going to die” so I suggested that we actually box for real while filming. In the film I lost but in real life I, of course, actually won [Choi Min-sik laughs].
Asian Global Impact: You’ve played a lot of roles where you’re killer or a gangster and I just wondered if you specifically chose those roles and if there was any reason for that choice?
Choi Min-sik: I don’t particularly want to play those characters, per se; I would like to play in a love story, for example. I don’t necessarily relish or enjoy playing such extreme characters but it’s the emotionality within those dramatic stories that moves me and encourages me to play those roles. So, for example, it may be my extreme imagination but in terms of the film ‘I Saw the Devil’ when I was thinking about this character, this serial murderer, I kept thinking about a song [Choi Min-sik hums a melody] that roughly translates as ‘The Morning of the Carnival’. So when choosing a film or a project to work on, I think it’s really sympathy for the character that draws me to the work so even though it may be an utterly evil human being thinking about why he had to live such a life or could only make those decisions is something that draws me. It was the same process that led me to take the part in ‘Oldboy’.
SumGyeoJin Gem: Your latest film is the historical drama ‘Battle of Myreongryang' and I wondered if it is very different portraying such an excessive historical character as it’s your first time playing a general?
Choi Min-sik: Of course, ‘Chihwaseon’ could also be classed as a historical drama. In terms of ‘Battle of Myreongryang’, the general is one of the greatest heroes in Korean history and anyone who is Korean would know his story. However, though the film is based on a real person and real events, we’re not making a documentary but rather interpreting the story. So there was a huge concern that we shouldn’t do damage to his legacy and of course the portrayal is vastly different t portraying fictional characters so we tried to approach it almost as an art film. So yes, there is more pressure when I’m playing a real character than a fictional one. The admiral Yi Sun-sin that the film deals with only had 13 ships and this was at a time during the Chosun dynasty when they were almost completely colonised by Japan which had a naval fleet ten times that size. Myreongryang refers to the beach where the battle took place. Yi Sun-sin won a huge victory and he’s also renowned for never having lost a battle. The film tries to recount the events leading up to that victory and the loneliness Yi Sun-sin must have felt as a human being. Ultimately, the question of the film is how he rationalised those feelings and it details his determination and the pain that took him to that victory.
Hangul Celluloid: You are, without question, one of the most famous actors in Korea and as your fame has grown over the years you have worked with a number of actors and actresses - Han Suk-kyu, Song Kang-ho, Son Ye-jin, Jeon Do-yeon etc - who have also gone on to become massive starts in their own right. From your perspective, do you feel that star power – the ability of a famous name to attract audiences – is as important and influential to Korean Cinema as it was in years gone by?
Choi Min-sik: Star power – we’re really not all that powerful [Choi Min-sik laughs]. If you look at actors and actresses in terms of their job and the relationship between actors and the public in modern society, equally as people in other jobs such as singers or dancers, I think they become very important mediums of communication with the public. Many Korean actors acknowledge the fact that they are playing an important role in being that medium of communication whether they are new or old actors, beyond the role of being an entertainer. Unlike watching TV dramas, film audiences need to invest their own time and money in order to visit the cinema and, whether it’s for an hour and a half or two hours, I think that for the audience members who visit the cinema it’s a must that we provide a cultural service. Many actors having this awareness, in contrast to the past when they might not have, give much thought and contemplation to their work and to be one of the Korean actors who does so, I feel a lot of pride. When Hollywood actors, for example, shoot risky scenes they may use substitutes, they are very concerned with their own safety and the environment they’re in very much fosters that – I’m not criticising that as a wrong thing, by the way – but with Korean actors there is a huge attitude or stance for sacrificing yourself to express something, almost to the point of stupidity, and not being concerned with one’s own safety. The priority is always centred around expression for Korean actors… including me [Choi Min-sik laughs].
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.
Korean Class Massive: You said in a previous interview that actors are all about the physical word and should use their tongues so it would be difficult for you to work in foreign films. Have you done anything special to prepare for your role in ‘Lucy’?
Choi Min-sik: First of all, when I was offered the character by Luc Besson we had only had one meeting and after I finish here in London I plan to travel over to France and meet with him again, discuss the film further and meet the crew. Before filming what I work on the most and what I feel is most important is to listen to the director and their views. Of course, when I’m reading the script I have the character and the sequence in mind that I have imagined but what most important is the intended picture that the director wants to depict.
Cine_Asie: I’d like to ask you about Han Suk-kyu: At the beginning of your career, you worked with him a lot in films and on TV but around 1999 your careers drifted apart. I’m interested to know how your relationship has progressed over time as you have focused on younger directors and talent and as you’ve said you choose the director to work with first?
Choi Min-sik: Our relationship hasn’t changed at all. Personally, he was one of my juniors at university and I’ve known him since he was 21 years old. Even now, we would often meet up and talk and in ‘Oldboy’ the character that Yoo Ji-tae played, called Lee Woo-jin, I actually recommended that character to him very strongly. I also recommended the character played by Lee Byung-hun in ‘I Saw the Devil’ to him as well but it didn’t work out. Even now, he’s an actor that I would love to work with again and he’s also a dear friend… but the director’s opinion is more important.
Asian Global Impact: You played in a number of TV dramas in the 90s. How does that compare with movies?
Choi Min-sik: First of all, there is a more leisurely pace. In terms of the Korean TV drama system – and I’m slightly embarrassed to share this with you – the schedule is very, very tight and, as such, there really isn’t enough time for character analysis or to really enjoy the work while we’re doing it. In contrast, when you’re working in film the decision may have been made to shoot a certain sequence but we might not go ahead because the weather isn’t right or the collaboration between the actors might be a bit off so we may decide to take a day off and take a rest. And TV dramas are watched by everyone from children to people of 80-years-old so the themes of films like ‘I Saw the Devil’ couldn’t possibly be converted into TV dramas. I found the limitations in the topics covered by TV dramas quite frustrating and, of course, there are ratings for films, or they have restricted viewings, and the screenwriter and director being able to manifest their ideas far more freely is for me the real appeal of film.
Koreaffinity: You’ve talked about expressing yourself in film, but do you feel more comfortable in an ensemble cast such as in ‘The Quiet Family’ or one-to-one with another actor as in ‘I Saw the Devil’?
Choi Min-sik: I don’t think the number of people that I work with is important. If I can offer a metaphor of whether you’re a musician playing as a solo artist or in a small group of people or a fully blown ensemble orchestra, it’s going to be equally difficult whatever the number of people is. It’s more about the compatibility of the actors so having fewer cast numbers doesn’t necessarily make things easier. In fact, sometimes when you have a large numbers of actors working in harmony there is a great deal of ecstasy that can be created. In short, the most important thing is the ensemble.
Cine-Asie: I wanted to ask about ‘New World’: ‘New World’ is screening at the London Film Festival in October and ‘Nameless Gangster’ is screening tonight. I would like to ask if those two films scan a similar universe and whether the director of ‘New World’ chose you because of your portrayal in ‘Nameless Gangster’? And is your visit to London when both films are screening everything coming together conveniently or is your attendance specially because of those two films?
Choi Min-sik: The director of ‘New World’, Park Hoon-jung, was actually the screenwriter for the film ‘I Saw the Devil’ and that’s how we met, but it wasn’t the same script dealt with in the final version of ‘I Saw the Devil’. The original title for ‘I Saw the Devil’ was ‘Night of the Sub-tropics’ and when I saw the script I was very much attracted by it – it was very simple, clean cut and wasn’t overly meticulous, it stuck to the essence of the story and said only what needed to be said. The first film that Park Hoon-jung directed wasn’t a success at all and while I’m sure that there are many reasons for its failure a large part was because of flaws in the directing itself. When a film completely fails in Korea, it’s very difficult for investors to find reasons to invest in that director’s next project but I felt for him to disappear from the film industry would be a huge loss - a waste of both talent and potential - so a few actors including myself and some producers got together and agreed that it would be worthwhile to give this director another opportunity. Whilst reading the book ‘New World’, myself, Hwang Jung-min and Lee Jung-tae agreed to become involved in the project and we found a producer who essentially sold our names to get investment for the film to be directed by park Hoon-jung. However, because of the level of mistrust for the director, it wasn’t easy: CJ Entertainment said no, Showbox Entertainment said no, Lotte Entertainment said no, and all of them demanded that we change the director but we said we couldn’t change it and to trust us. Eventually, distributor NEW was persuaded to take an interest; we told them that they’d make lots of money if they invested… and actually they did. We wanted to stimulate the Korean film industry in terms of the way investment works, step away from only investing in films that will make money and we wanted to encourage investment in directors who aren’t big names but show potential.
Koreaffinity: If Park Chan-wook asked you tomorrow to repeat the scene with the hammer, would you repeat it?
Choi Min-sik: No, I don’t like the hammer [Choi Min-sik laughs].
On behalf of everyone involved, I'd sincerely like to thank the Korean Cultural Centre UK for allowing us all to interview actor Choi Min-sik at such length.