The image we all have of Choi Min-Sik is his character in Oldboy. Hair crazed, a demented grin on his face, hammer raised over his head, refusing to lie down and die, he just keeps coming, and coming, and coming. It’s this same intensity that has made him Korea’s greatest actor. Other stars might get more fans, or more box office, or more awards, but Choi Min-Sik gets the most respect. Onstage or off, he oozes integrity from every pore of his body.
He got his start in theater and in some small, well-respected films like No. 3 and Kim Ji-Woon’s The Quiet Family (remade by Takashi Miike as the musical, Happiness of the Katakuris). Then, in 1999, just as the new Korean cinema was becoming internationally recognized, he played appeared in the blockbuster, Shiri, as a fanatical North Korean terrorist who, oddly enough, came across as sympathetic to audiences. Next came two intense performances as a husband trapped in a failing marriage in Happy Ending and a low level gangster in Failan, which remains one of his personal favorite performances. His central performance as the real-life artist in Im Kwon-Taek’s Chihwaeson elevated him to the A-list at home, but it was his unforgettable turn as Oh Dae-Su in Oldboy that made his name internationally.
Next came performances in the heartbreaking boxing film, Crying Fist, and Park Chan-Wook’s Lady Vengeance and then he stopped. Sickened by the United States policy of trying to undermine Korean films by forcing the Korean government to reduce its protections of its domestic film industry, Choi and hundreds of other actors, directors, and technicians staged protests and tried to draw international attention to the struggle. At the Cannes Film Festival in 2006, Choi conducted a one-man silent protest outside the Palais theater, followed by several one-man protests back in Korea. A vocal critic of the MPAA’s interventions in Korea, he was disheartened when the Korean government bowed to American pressure and halved the screen quota system. In a display of disgust, he returned his Og-Gwan Order of Cultural Merit, a recognition awarded to him by the government, and he stepped out of the film industry, only appearing in a few independent movies.
Then, in 2010, he teamed up with director Kim Ji-Woon (The Good, The Bad, and The Weird) and actor Lee Byun-Hyung for I Saw the Devil, playing a whiny, vicious, pathetic serial killer. The performance was a massive comeback for him, and even critics of the movie praised his blood-soaked performance (Choi had a hard time with the part, claiming that all the fake blood made him feel ill). With Nameless Gangster he turns in another epic performance, etching into the screen the kind of character only he could depict, someone pathetic, intense, dangerous, obnoxious, sympathetic, horrifying, and lovable. In short, someone human.