Year of the 4 Actors: All About Choi Min-sik

Coming up at the end of this month is an event that UK Korean film fans will be no doubt be counting down the seconds to. As part of the KCC UK’s ‘Year of the 4 Actors’ programme, one of Korea’s greatest actors is paying us a visit – that’s right, Choi Min-sik himself! For anyone who’s not familiar with his name, I’m sure all I have to say is ‘the guy from Oldboy‘ and you’ll immediately know who I mean. Yes, Mr. Hammer-Wielding-Man himself will be coming over for a Q&A! Choi Min-sik is such an infamous actor that managing to snag this guy for ‘The Year of the 4 Actors’ is amazing. Starring in films such as I saw the Devil and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance has not only gained him huge recognition in Korea, but internationally too. Film4 often screens Oldboy and due to the international success of many of his films, his name is one that many foreign film fans know right off the bat. In Korean cinema, Choi Min-sik is one of the biggest names about.

Having graduated with a degree in theatre, Choi Min-sik dabbled first in plays before heading into film and TV dramas. He gained recognition from roles in films such as Shiri, Happy End and Failan, but it was in Korean wonder film Oldboy where Choi Min-sik’s popularity really took off into the stratosphere. After a four year self-imposed acting exile, he came back to film and in 2010 won more acclaim for his portrayal of a serial killer in I saw the Devil. Over the years Choi Min-sik has won more ‘Best Actor’ awards than we’ve had hot meals, and his popularity doesn’t look set to diminish any time soon. One of his next roles sees him in Director Luc Besson’s Lucy, with actress Scarlett Johansson, and this will be his English language film debut. This role will be a great opportunity for those who don’t have much exposure to Korean cinema to be introduced to this great actor.

Choi Min-sik seems like a very cool guy with a clear and realistic outlook on things, but maintains his artistic sensibilities. In an interview with he said “I’m a professional actor so I make money with this but I’m still an artist so I need some feeling to choose movies when I first read the script. No matter how popular that film might be, it doesn’t really matter. I just need some sort of feeling when I first read the ideas” (source). It’s quotes such as this that show he’s a level headed man who understands the need for artistic integrity and balance in the life of an actor. He’s also very much concerned and involved with issues regarding the longevity of Korean cinema, as his self imposed acting exile was prompted by the South Korean administration’s decision to reduce the Screen Quotas from 146 to 73 days as part of the Free Trade Agreement with the US. In the past, he’s also said that “to make the Korean film industry flourish more, of course we need more support in terms of policies from the government, economically, but eventually all the crews, including directors and actors should try harder and do their best to make the best films ever.  So that is the best thing to make the film industry succeed better. We should focus more on fundamental problems, especially when the circumstances are tough and complicated“ (source). Choi Min-sik is clearly a man with big ideas and big talent. I’m sure the cinema will be overflowing for his arrival in the UK and undoubtedly he’ll have some amazing insights to give us all.

The KCC UK has been screening his films for the ‘Year of the 4 Actors’, with the sixth instalment being coupled with his visit and Q&A held at the BAFTAs. The films of the Choi Min-sik season have been…

choi-min-sik-films 1

Failan (2001)

Failan is the beautiful story of a Chinese woman (Cecilia Cheung) looking to stay in South Korea and marries a downtrodden gangster (Choi Min-sik) who’s out to make some quick cash. Although they’ve never met, Choi’s character yearns to know more about her after he hears of her death. Travelling to the place where she lived, meeting with the people she knew and reading the letters which she wrote to him, he slowly discovers what her life was like and finds out that his own life is worth more than he thought. This is a bittersweet and touching film that will leave the emotional among you with tears. Although some say this film is a bit slow-paced, don’t let the lack of car exploding action put you off. This is one of Choi’s roles where you can see his range of emotions and will give you a good idea of just how versatile he can be if you’ve only seen him in thrillers before.

Oldboy (2004)

The film that people outside Korea will know if you ask them what Korean films they’ve seen. Its fame is vast and rightly so, it’s a classic for a reason. Choi plays a man who’s out to discover who his captor is after 15 years of imprisonment, and just why he was shut inside one room for over a decade in the first place. As the story plays out, you see him team up with a young and naive waitress and together they set out to find out who’s the puppet-master behind the whole scheme. I’m sure almost everyone knows the twist by now, but for those who don’t, you’re in for a big surprise! In this film Choi stuns the audience with his acting and it’s no surprise why it was such a hit and catapulted him into the spotlight. If you haven’t seen this film yet, what have you been doing with your life?!

Korean old boy

Possibly the most iconic image in Korean Cinema

Chihwaseon (2004)

Taking a look at some of the ancient history of Korea, Choi Min-sik steps into the role of Jang Seung-up, a famous painter who lived in the 19th Century. Playing out the artist’s turbulent and fascinating life amid a backdrop of political turmoil and change, this is a film that will appeal on many levels, from its visuals to its plot. A good film for those looking to see Choi in a less violent role, his portrayal of the painter will pull you into the historical and personal world of this interesting historical figure.

choi-min-sik-films 2

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005)

Another big hitter in the world of Korean films, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is gory yet artistic film that’s heavy on both intrigue and suspense.  Choi plays the role of a seemingly well-mannered school teacher, who has a secret dark side which involves murdering children. The story centres around a woman he framed for one of his murders as she sets out for revenge against him after a lengthy jail term. Choi shows how he can take on any kind of characteristic in this film and will wow you with his sadistic role. Although not as gory as I Saw the Devil, there are scenes which may not be suitable for some, but this film is very visually appealing and the narrative is great, so give it a try even if you’re a bit squeamish.

I Saw the Devil (2010)

Playing a raging psychopath and serial killer, Choi shows us his dark side in this film that was repeatedly refused a certificate because of its gory contents. Not one for the easily scared, this film is a brutal cat and mouse game between Choi and Lee Byung-hun, who plays a National Intelligence agent out for revenge after Choi kills his wife. In a tale that shows that revenge can lead to worse and worse consequences, the characters spiral into a world of despair and loathing that will leave the viewer both rapt and shocked at some scenes. Though not one for the faint-hearted, it’s an amazing thriller that will pull you in.

Nameless Gangsta (plus Q&A) (2011)

Many say that Choi’s role in this film is one of his best, and that’s why it’s been saved until last to screen for The Year of the 4 Actors’ programme. Playing the part of a customs officer turned drugs baron, Choi Min-sik does a simply incredible job.  Looking back on his life dealing with his own gang, criminal friends, gang war and negotiating with enemies, the seedy underworld of drug trafficking and criminality is brought to life by Choi.  This is a film that Choi Min-sik fans needs to see and a great one to recommend to fans of gritty crime films.

Choi Min-sik’s visit will be an incredible event and a wonderful opportunity for his fans to be able to interact with the man himself. Places have filled out extremely quickly but never fear, the final actor of KCCUK’s The Year of the 4 Actors’ will no doubt please many, the very handsome Ha Jung-woo! Cinema goers will see him alongside Choi Min-sik in Nameless Gangster but he’s a face that has graced KCCUK’s screening many times such as in Love Fiction, My Dear Enemy, The Chaser and at this year’s Terracotta Film Festival in his more recent film The Berlin File. We can’t wait!

Ha Jung woo UK Eastern Kicks

Image by Easterkicks – for all your East Asian movie needs!


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