Jun 2016 VOL.62


  • Roaring Currents & Lucy CHOI Min-shik
  • by LEE Ji-hye / 10.17.2014
  • Balancing Korea in one hand and Hollywood in the other

    He set an unimaginable new record in Korean cinema. Roaring Currents, in which CHOI Min-sik plays Korea’s national hero Admiral YI Sun-shin topped the all-time box office standings in Korea with a record of 17.6 million admissions, dethroning Avatar (2009). Yet that’s not all. His Hollywood debut film Lucy directed by Luc BESSON topped the North American box office at the same time. CHOI became the first Korean actor ever to sweep both the Korean and North American box offices simultaneously. This extraordinary new record set by CHOI is expected to remain untouched for a long time. It seems that only CHOI was able to make such a mark since he is a passionate and talented actor who devotes himself to his characters. Since making his debut through Kuro Arirang, the first PARK Jong-won film from 1989, CHOI has not stopped trying new characters as an adventurous performer. CHOI has continued to shine in great roles since then. CHOI is still dreaming of trying and exploring new characters even though he established this rare record that seemed unthinkable only several years ago.
    In the beginning, CHOI was nervous to play the character of Admiral YI due to his grandeur
    In fact, director KIM Han-min was also faced with many questions from the planning stages of Roaring Currents. Admiral YI is a national hero in Korea, but who will be able to perform up to his name? Director KIM picked CHOI as the only actor that could play the character. CHOI decided to take on the role but had to think about it long and hard.
    - When you were offered the role, what did you think about it?
    At first, I thought that I would turn it down. Roaring Currents was a bold attempt for a Korean commercial film. First of all, it was important to graphically express the battle scenes. I became concerned about the success of the film since I thought that Korean viewers would not be satisfied with battle scenes created with local CG technology since they were already accustomed to Hollywood blockbusters. It also came across as a big burden to play Korea’s most famous real-life character. However, director KIM said, “I want to make a commercial film based on Admiral YI whatever it takes.” And that forced me to change my mind.  
    - It is not easy to play a great man in history. What was it like?
    I freely acted with imagination when I played fictional characters. However, it was impossible to act with imagination since Admiral YI is a real character and a national hero that the Korean people love and respect. I wanted to know who Admiral YI really was. That compelled me to read his war diary. The more I studied him, the more the character overwhelmed me. 
    - What was the hardest aspect of the role for you?
    When I read his diary, I strongly questioned how such a perfect human being could exist. Admiral YI bravely commanded his soldiers at all of his battles. The King did not trust Admiral YI and attempted to have him killed, but Admiral YI swore allegiance to the country and risked his life. It was a huge burden and this is not an exaggeration but a historical fact. If there was a time machine, I would definitely go back to this period and meet Admiral YI. To that extent, I had no clue how to play YI well. I did not have any confidence in playing his character. “Can I play the role of this great man as an actor? Unless I do it well, I might tarnish his reputation and image,” I thought. This fear gripped me more and more strongly. I never had such an experience in my acting career. But I thought that it would be quite meaningful to show Admiral YI to audiences.
    - What was the most memorable time during the shoot?
    It was Admiral YI’s famous speech in the scene where he says, “If you want to die, you will live. If you want to live, you will die.” Actually, I wasn’t feeling very well for this shoot but when I looked over, my junior officers and soldiers looked at me as if I was really Admiral YI. I acted with so many people. Some cried. Some were pained, saying, “We will all die soon.” Somebody showed courage, saying, “I will fight with the Admiral until I die.” Even every single extra gave their best acting even though the camera did not focus on them. They moved me at this point. That was a moment that consoled me as I struggled through the shoot.
    - Roaring Currents showed Admiral YI as a war hero and also as a human being. How did you show both aspects?
    showed Admiral YI as a war hero and also as a human being. How did you show both aspects?
    When thinking about Admiral YI, people usually think that he is a brave and smart military leader who defeated 330 enemy battleships with only 12 vessels. Admiral YI was a really great leader. But his war diary told me that he was also an honest and nice person. Admiral YI felt sad when unfortunate things took place. When he felt angry, he expressed his anger. Admiral YI took complete control over his feelings during battles but in normal times, he felt very human. I could feel through each sentence in his war diary his emotions and the expressions of his eyes. Therefore, I hoped that Admiral Yi would be seen not only as a great admiral, but also as a human being. I went to great pains to show his guilty conscience as a son who could not be with his mother when she passed away and his pity for his soldiers killed in action. I think the reason why human beings are great is not because they do not feel fear, but that they overcome it. This makes Admiral YI even greater in my opinion.
    - The sea battle scenes look quite real. Was it physically tough to act in these?
    The scenes were physically very hard to shoot, not just for me, but also for everyone involved. Many actors were injured. Ryohei’s ear was torn and another actor had one of his toes broken. However, no one stopped the shoot and everyone continued to their best ability. In fact, actors fought like real admirals and soldiers. Such painstaking efforts by the actors were a huge factor to the successful completion of the film. In this film, all actors are heroes. It was a very touching experience.

    To actors, sympathy is more important than language.  
    - You received much attention from overseas filmmakers before joining director Luc BESSON for Lucy. Why did you turn down other offers before Lucy?
    I did not stubbornly reject offers. But I thought that language and cultural differences would prevent me from acting as best as I could. I also did not feel any need to star in a foreign film.
    - Then what made you change your mind to work with BESSON for Lucy?
    Director BESSON flew into Korea to cast me as Mr. JANG and spelled out the film for me. That really touched me. I was curious about how BESSON makes films and to find out the difference between Korean and Hollywood film production systems. In particular, BESSON was very considerate of me. He let me act in Korean instead of speaking English. That made me feel very comfortable on the set. 
    - What mattered to you the most when you played Mr. JANG?
    Director BESSON created Asian villain Mr. JANG who is a stark contrast to the blond Lucy (Scarlet JOHANSSON). I had to make sure to show the awkwardness between Lucy and Mr. JANG during their first meeting. This is why Mr. JANG speaks Korean and Lucy speaks in English. Lucy feels more fearful since Mr. JANG and Lucy cannot communicate with each other.
    - How was acting with JOHANSSON?
    Even though we speak different languages, it was not a problem for me to act. I felt that we communicated with each other not through conversations but through acting. It was an electric feeling that I’ve never felt before.  
    - What was the most difficult part in your first foreign film project?
    To be honest with you, my acting in Lucy was disappointing to me. But I think that it is kind of a tune-up. When I spoke Korean lines, the actress opposite me spoke English lines, making me a little distracted. I did not have confidence about my acting on the set, so I asked the director to shoot one more time. I think there was a desire to do better, as it is my first Hollywood film.
    - Chihwaseon (2002), an IM Kwon-taek film, and Oldboy (2003), a PARK Chan-wook film, launched you to fame in world cinema. You topped the Hollywood box office standings through Lucy. Will you set a bigger goal for the future?
    All of my films are valuable and important to me. I don’t necessarily feel happier about winning a prize at an international film festival or setting box office records. I think I’ve just started to understand what acting is. This fuels my desire to act even better and attempt new things. Needless to say, my fear has grown too. In the past, it was fine for me to act, believing in my acting skills. But now, I question why I have to act in a certain role. There is no right answer. But it became clearer that I will continue to go this way. My acting career will become really interesting from now on. 
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