Exclusive Interview: Korea’s De Niro, Choi Min-Sik

With a background in theater acting, Choi appeared in a handful of movies through the ‘90s, but it was with 2003’s Oldboy where he first teamed with Mr. Park that made both of them cult favorites among fans of genre and action movies, including filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino. That was followed in 2005 with the boxing drama Crying Fist and Park’s follow-up Lady Vengeance, and then last year, Choi could be seen killing and dismembering pretty girls in Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil.

Choi’s latest movie is Nameless Gangster, a period crime thriller set in the southern region of Korea known as Busan (formerly Pusan), where Choi plays a hapless customs official who discovers he has a family connection to a local gangster, using his wiles and connections to move up the ranks of the city’s corrupt political and legal system. It’s another great role for Choi where he put on weight and made himself look very different from his previous roles, but it’s not your classic tough guy gangster where he commands the screen with bravado, but rather one where you can’t believe this awkward and sometimes nerdy character is able to command respect among violent criminals.

ComingSoon.net had a very rare chance to sit down with Mr. Choi when he was in New York City for the New York Asian Film Festival where he appeared as a special guest to answer questions about Nameless Gangster and some of his other roles as part of a retrospective.

ComingSoon.net: Let’s start with “Nameless Gangster.” You did “I Saw the Devil” and then only one other movie between so you seem very selective. What were you looking for in a movie that grabbed you with this one?

Choi Min-sik:
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.

CS: I was almost shocked when I started watching this movie, because I didn’t recognize you and that was the same the first time I saw “Crying Fist.” I thought, “Is that the same guy from ‘Old Boy’?” Is changing your appearance for these movies something you bring and that you want to do when you take on a role, to change your appearance and make yourself look different?

To the image of the characters, I do change my appearance. For example, I gain weight and I lose weight sometimes and I grow my hair and cut it. Acting is all about physical expression, so I need to change my appearance for all the characters.

CS: For this role, that was your real hair that you grew and had cut like that? You don’t use wigs? You do it naturally?

I actually do, it’s always my hair.

CS: You always seem to have pretty crazy hair styles in every movie you do, so you don’t have problems wearing those hairstyles the rest of the day after you finish shooting?

(laughs) Yeah, when I was shooting ‘Oldboy,’ I had to keep that hair until the filming was complete. Even in my day-to-day life, I walked around with that hairstyle.

CS: The characters you’ve played are pretty disturbing, particularly in “I Saw the Devil” and I’d think when you’re done shooting, you’d want to get away from the character, so is it harder to do that when you’ve created that specific look and you still have that look when you’re done shooting?

It’s actually really tough. If you live around dummies and fake blood for six months, it becomes a part of you. It’s fake blood, but sometimes I still feel the real scent of blood, so it’s more mentally collapsing, not only physical. I was on the elevator one day while shooting “I Saw the Devil” and this one random stranger talked to me really rudely. Usually, I’d pass it by when not shooting a film but since I was so into the character, I got this one idea of really beating him so I became a little violent while shooting the film and I got freaked out myself by that idea.

CS: Is getting so deeply into a character something that came from your theater background that you’ve brought to your process as an actor while making movies?

The stage experience helped me a lot to build an acting method, changing inner interpretation besides outer appearances like hair and the way of speaking.

CS: I can tell. As I said, I see your different movies and if I didn’t know that was you, I’d be “Is that the same guy?” Director Jong who did “Nameless Gangster,” he’s a younger director so it’s odd to see him doing a period piece like that, since he was probably a kid during that time. When it was obvious when you read the script that he could recreate these periods?

Before I read the script, I was a little suspicious about the director’s idea because he was too young to represent the period but after I read it, I was surprised because during the ’70s and ’80s, the director was a really small kid. On top of it, I was a college student so I thought I could understand more than that, but the director actually represented the period very well, so I was really surprised. I found out later that the director’s dad was high-ranking police officer at the time in Busan, the same city where the movie is set. So the movie portrays the corruption of the police officers, the corruption of the customs officials, and other situations from those times, which I think he must have seen through his father and made him try to understand greater things and that’s reflected in the movie.

CS: I understand that the dialect in Busan is very different from Seoul, so can you talk about how you went about learning that dialect and changed your own speech for the character?

Actually, I never really spoke that Busan dialect before so I had to learn it. I really should have lived there at least one year to learn it but I couldn’t, so it was really tough to learn it.

CS: Did you work with someone on that or did you have tapes to listen to?

There is an actor from “I Saw the Devil” who is slightly younger than me who was in “Nameless Gangster,” too, and he’s from Busan, so he became my personal tutor and taught me the Pusan dialect.

CS: Did the director find a lot of actors from that area to fill out the roles or did others have to learn that dialect?

It’s really interesting but other than me and the other main actor, Jung-woon Ha, everyone was from Pusan.

CS: You tend to be attracted to physical roles as we saw in “Shiri” and “Oldboy” to “Crying Fist,” but this movie and “I Saw the Devil” were also physical but mainly with you getting beat up. When you’re reading these scripts and see that you’re going to get beaten up again, do you prepare yourself physically to do those scenes?

(laughs) I admit that I’ve been beaten up so many times in films but we do not fake it, we actually have to fight when we shoot to make it real and to save film and time. Even the props that are not real, like the bats are plastic, but they’re still very hard, so it still hurts.

CS: But when you read the script, you like the character and story enough that you’ll go through all of that to make it more believable?

It’s only a part of the film and there’s always a reason to be beaten up, so I do understand the necessity of the scenes. Of course, personally I don’t enjoy being beaten up.

CS: “Old Boy” and “I Saw the Devil” are both pretty disturbing movies and I’ve interviewed both directors Park and Kim before, and they’re both fairly nice and mild-mannered and you wouldn’t imagine such disturbing movies would come from them. Do you feel that people you meet are scared of you because of the disturbing things you’ve done in these movies?

It’s a really funny story but after shooting “I Saw the Devil,” I was in an elevator again and there was a strange girl who was so freaked out and panicked and she confessed that she saw “I Saw the Devil” and that she was afraid of him, she said that. So I said, “I don’t kill people anymore, so you don’t need to be worried about me. I’m human, not a killer.” I had to say that.

CS: You have a lot of funny elevator stories and this is the perfect place for that. (The Green Room at the Walter Reade theater involves a lot of complex elevators and hallways. We then told Mr. Choi a story about interviewing Park Chan-wook and a journalist shaking because they were so afraid of him, which made him laugh.) You’re already shooting another movie I understand, which is also a gangster movie?

I play a policeman, it’s called “The New World.”

CS: How’s it been going? You’re in the middle of shooting?

It’s only the beginning of shooting, like Day 10, and I just finished shooting to come here and I have to go back to acting in it after this.

CS: That’s a more modern crime story?

It’s a modern thriller. I’m working on a new project. It’s a 16th Century movie about the war between Korea and Japan and there’s a really famous sea war, one of the Top 3, and I’m going to be General Lee Soon-shin, who is like Admiral Nelson. (Note: This project is currently called “Battle of Myeongryang, Whirlwind Sea”)

CS: Have they ever shot a big water movie in Korea and do they have the big water tanks needed?

This will be the first and it’s a really tough and big project.

CS: Both directors Park and Kim are currently making American movies. You’ve been a big supporter of Korean cinema and screen quotas, so have you talked to them at all since then about their decision to do American movies?

There’s something that people misunderstand about screen quotas. It’s not about rejecting or hating other countries’ films, but about protecting our domestic film industry. It’s not saying let’s not watch American movies, let’s not make American movies, it’s not about that. We should watch American movies, British films, French films, Indian films, we should watch all of them. But let’s protect our own domestic movies… It’s not opposition to American cinema. There’s no problem with them making American films. That’s beyond movies, that’s cultural exchange. We’re not at all against cultural exchange. It’s exciting, it causes people to work together, so I’m all for it. There’s one last thing that I have to bring up. Screen quotas aren’t there to make people reject foreign films, or to stop people from watching American films, but about the duty to have Korean films played in theaters. We want to make sure that Korean films will play a certain number of days every year. So American films, English films, French films, we’re not saying that people shouldn’t watch all they want, but let’s guarantee that 146 or so days a year will see our domestic films play in theaters. This is so because theater owners would only want to play commercially successful movies that earn high revenue, so directors like Hong Sang-soo, Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon, Yim Pil-sung and Lee Chang-dong, wouldn’t get played in theaters, because their movies aren’t mainstream and don’t draw large audiences. So with the screen quota, you can go to the theater and see movies by people like Hong Sang-soo and Kim Ki-duk. That’s what the screen quota is about.

CS: Do you have any interest in doing American movies yourself? Have you been approached?

No, because of the language barrier. Directors and actors have different jobs and words, so directors are more like conductors so they can manage other crews and stuff, but actors, it’s all about physical words, so I really should use my own tongue and it’s really difficult to do that.

Nameless Gangster already opened in limited release in the United States, but hopefully some wise distributor will pick it up for DVD and Blu-ray release in the United States soon. Meanwhile, the New York Asian Film Festival continues from now until Sunday, July 15, at the Walter Reade Theater and Japan Society in New York.

Thanks to Angie Han for her help with the translation.

(Photo Credit: Nobuhiro Hosoki)