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Choi Min Sik - Korean Chameleon

Written by Alison Jobling Tell a Friend

Choi Min Sik has not made a bad film. Ever. He has not turned in a dud performance, ever. His characterisations are extraordinary, from the unfocused layabout doofus of The Quiet Family to the hyperfocused violent sociopath of Old Boy.

Choi, despite having a strikingly recognisable face in an industry awash with indistinguishable handsomeness, is something of a cypher. He is one of the few actors able not only to give depth and texture to a role, but to immerse himself totally within it. And more often than not, that immersion results in a performance of such energy and passion that you are forced to believe that Choi *is* the character.

Choi was born on 22nd January, 1962, in the South Korean capital of Seoul. His background in theatre is probably partly responsible for his larger-than-life performances and his total submission to his roles. He has acted in theatre and television, and worked with director Pang Chong Won, before beginning a string of excellent performances in a string of fine films, with extremely divergent characters.

His role in Song Neung Han's 1997 gangster film No. 3 was a small one, which nonetheless allowed him the latitude he needed to make an impact. Playing a prosecutor determined to bring gangsters to justice, he turned what might have been a standard, bad-tempered justice official into a complex and real personality, alternately charming and wildly irritating. It's tempting to say that no one else could have given the role the same depth. We see a man grimly determined to enact justice, hot-tempered and frustrated by the rise of corruption in society that even extends to his son's school, and resolutely refusing the friendly overtures of a gangster, played by Han Suk Kyu.

Choi Min Sik's next major role could not have been more different, yet he inhabits this one just as convincingly. The film is Kim Ji Woon's black comedy The Quiet Family, with Choi essaying the ne'er-do-well brother of a couple who, with their three children, leave the city and take up management of a mountain resort. Sadly for the six family members, guests are scarce. Worse, the first guest suicides one night, leading the family to bury him in the woods. More guests, more deaths, more furtive nighttime burials, until events reach a comic crisis.

The film is a treasure, with the ensemble cast providing some brilliant performances and working together like a true family. Choi and Song Kang Ho provide most of the humour; the two great actors give their all in unflattering roles that are absolutely inimitable. Choi's whole persona is that of a lazy, shiftless drifter, uninterested in anything and afraid of consequences. His goofy, gormless expressions complement a body language that tell you this is a man without much direction in life, a lazy, venal man who thinks no further than the next meal.

This role is especially striking when compared to his performances in films such as Park Chan Wook's powerful revenge drama Old Boy (2003), or Kang Jae Gyu's blockbuster actioner Shiri (1999). Without that highly recognisable face, you'd be convinced it was not the same man. Even with that face, you're tempted to believe it must be a near-relative, not Choi himself.

Shiri, in which Choi played a North Korean special forces agent on a deadly mission within South Korea, broke all sorts of box office records in South Korea, and earned Choi a Best Actor award from the Korean Grand Bell awards. In some ways, this role is a prefiguring of his knockout performance in Old Boy, although there is no other connection between the films. Choi's Major Park shows the same intense monofocus as can be seen in his Oh Dae Su from Old Boy, and the same ruthless hair-trigger penchant for violence that makes both films so riveting. And like Park Chan Wook's outstanding drama JSA, Shiri provides a glimpse of the tensions between North and South, with Choi's Major Park providing a telling portrait of the pride and desperation of North Koreans being pushed beyond endurance by world politics.

Choi went from Shiri to Jung Ji Woo's tragic drama Happy End via a theatrical stint as Hamlet, with little pause and yet another drastic change of direction. His role here, as an ordinary devoted family man who discovers his wife is cheating on him, is a subtle and nuanced one, and Choi carries it with his usual aplomb. There is none of the tension and violence of his role in Shiri, nor is there any sign of the aimless loser he portrayed so well in The Quiet Family. Here he is a quiet and devoted husband and father who - unusual for a Korean man - is not as worried by his unemployment as his wife is. This portrayal of a man pushed beyond his limits is simply stunning: the final scene is one of the most memorable of all cinema, showing as it does the complexity involved in any choices we make.

Failan (2001), directed by Song Hae Sung, gave him another subtle role, as a small-time gangster whose arranged marriage to a Chinese immigrant, played by Hong Kong actress Cecilia Cheung, goes wrong. Once again, Choi's performance is flawless; he plays a drunkard whose schemes never work and whose thoughts are all for himself, until he is forced to travel to the seaside to attend his wife's funeral. The journey, both physical and emotional, changes him, and Choi handles this change with a minimalist style. His small-time gangster is at once infuriating and pathetic, showing hints of the man he might have been before life dealt so harshly with him.

Im Kwon Taek's lavish historical drama Chihwaseon (2002) gave Choi another chance to let loose on a character. This time, the role was that of a 19th century Korean painter, Jang Seung Ub, otherwise known as Ohwon. Ohwon's life provides fine material for Choi, who infuses the outspoken, womanising, hard-drinking artist with a character that resonates beyond the end of the film. This is no mean feat, especially since the glorious landscapes of Korea have prime focus here: there is scarcely a single shot without heart-breakingly beautiful scenery visible.

The film won Im the Best Director award at Cannes in 2002, and it's easy to see why. Chihwaseon is a sprawling, stirring, simply gorgeous film with lush cinematography and intense drama. The story of Ohwon is set amidst the turmoil of Korean politics in the 19th century, and Choi's performance as the talented artist adrift on the political tides of the time is simply superb. He steers a demanding course between arrogant artist and out of control womanising drunkard, weaving the widely varying character threads into a performance that is at once humanly fallible and utterly compelling.

Choi's finest opportunity arrived with the chance to perform the central role of Oh Dae Su in Park Chan Wook's 2003 masterwork, Old Boy. This admittedly meaty role would have provided plenty of material for any actor, but there are few capable of making as much of it as did Choi. Oh Dae Su is first seen as a reprehensible drunk, a man not especially unlikable but very definitely irritating. When kidnapped by unknown assailants and imprisoned, he gradually changes, passing through fear, desperation, and madness, emerging 15 years later as a monomaniacal hunter, focused only on finding the man responsible and exacting revenge.

The role is a meaty one, and not solely because Choi had to consume a live octopus. Oh Dae Su begins as a man clearly unsuccessful, both personally and professionally. His transition to the consummate assassin, complete with claw hammer and single-minded focus on his search for answers, is masterful and extreme. Choi not only chews the aforementioned octopus (a scene that had to be shot four times before Park was satisfied), but he chows down on the scenery to give a larger than life portrait of vengeance incarnate. This performance garnered him a Best Actor award at the Korean Grand Bell Awards in 2004, which also saw director Park receiving the Best Director award, to complement the Grand Prix de Jury he won for Old Boy at Cannes the same year.

Choi's next film, When Spring Comes, provided yet another change of pace for this versatile actor. This time, as an unsuccessful trumpet player who becomes a teacher in a school in the country, he maps out a transition in reverse, getting his life together and dealing with his personal problems in a more reasonable way. The film avoids all the usual cliches of such a story, allowing Choi to create a realistic and subtle character that is at once warm and believable, and light years from the raging elemental force that was Oh Dae Su.

It's hard to believe that one man can create so many credible and riveting characters, and wear so many wildly different guises. Compare the slouching, cowardly layabout from The Quiet Family with the martial precision of Captain Park from Shiri: there's not a single common element between the two. Try to find a hint of similarity between the teacher struggling to straighten out his life in Springtime and the violent demon-ridden Oh Dae Su of Old Boy, or between the gentle husband of Happy End and the drunken, womanising artist of Chihwaseon.

You'll be stumped, because Choi handles subtle and extreme roles with equal ease. He can infuse a simple character with warmth and depth, or make an intense and pathological character credible. And he's never given a bad performance. Ever. Remember this the next time you're choosing a film: if you choose one starring Choi, you won't be disappointed.

Published April 30, 2005

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