The thing is, I don’t even know if I’m that good at it. I do this, but I’ve only done this. It just seems like a way of life.
Two decades on, Park Chan-wook’s Neo-noir classic Oldboy—a film that for many has served as a gateway into South Korean cinema—remains his most iconic. The centerpiece to his Vengeance Trilogy, alongside Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance, it’s cinema that holds a cold knife to your throat. Try wrapping your head around being in solitary for 15 years. Or consider that one-take corridor brawl in which Dae-su (Choi Min Sik) takes on a score of goons with nothing more than a claw-hammer. It’s a helter-skelter descent into the dingiest pit of the human condition.
Oldboy remains a cult phenom, more or less undamaged by Spike Lee’s 2013 English-language remake. The original took home the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, quickly making fans out of the likes of Quentin Tarantino. And for better or worse, Choi may forever be remembered as “Oldboy,” despite his countless other brilliant outings, and from long before this revenge performance catapulted him into the international spotlight. In 2014, Luc Besson went as far as to declare Choi “the most popular actor in the world” as Lucy topped the box office in over two dozen countries. (Lucy was Choi’s Hollywood debut.) Meanwhile, the actor’s South Korean epic, The Admiral: Roaring Currents, was also breaking all-time box office records back home.
It’s no surprise that the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN) is giving Choi its Actor Retrospective showcase this year. The annual genre festival will screen select films from his filmography, including Choi Bo-young’s Vapor (1988), Park Jong-won’s Our Twisted Hero (1992), King Je-kyu’s Swiri (1999), Jung Ji-woo’s Happy End (1999), Song Hae-sung’s Failan (2001), Ryu Jang-ha’s Springtime (2004), Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil (2010), Yoon Jong-bin’s Nameless Gangster: Rules of Time (2012), Park Dong-hoon’s In Our Prime (2022), and of course, Oldboy.
Stateside, NEON’s 20th Anniversary Restoration of Oldboy will hit select theaters on August 16th.
The Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in South Korea runs from June 29 – July 9.
[Editor’s Note: The following conversation has been translated from Korean to English.]
You shared some of your feelings at the opening ceremony last night, but I wonder if other things have come to light now having slept on that experience. How are you feeling today?
What else can I say? For any actor, I don’t know if a more privileged position exists. And as I mentioned last night on stage, it’s a bit embarrassing as well. It feels like I’m taking my skin off a little bit. That’s how it feels. For a long time, my films have lived in the public space, and many people have shared and discussed them in the media, but to have them collected together as its own section like this, it’s a different thing. And I still only see the mistakes that I’ve made. [laughs] That makes me go, “Okay, I have to do my best.” And although I’ve had exhibitions like this once or twice overseas, above all, it is such an honor to be able to do it in our country, alongside our veteran filmmakers, colleagues, and the next generation of talent. It feels more sacred than anything else and my heart feels full. I’m so grateful for this opportunity. In fact, we have to give more compliments to the festival. No matter how much I thank them, it never feels like enough.
The festival also put together a book on you to coincide with the retrospective and exhibition. There’s a lot to cover. How did you choose the 12 films to screen from your filmography?
There was no real special reason other than it’s what we thought was manageable as we discussed how the festival might be best enjoyed. If anything, it’s meant to highlight how I’ve shown different sides of myself with the characters that I’ve portrayed. In Our Twisted Hero, I’m in better shape… [laughs] Of course, it doesn’t sound great making a list of something like that. But it’s like a ballad or a roadmap to underscore something more meaningful. That was sort of the approach.
You talk about feeling embarrassed in the book, too. What has been your proudest moment?
The thing is, I don’t even know if I’m that good at it. I do this, but I’ve only done this. It just seems like a way of life. This might be a cheeky thing to say: it’s something I love so deeply, but one day, if that love cools down, I’ll leave without regrets. Thankfully, this is a road that I love being on and I’m so happy to be doing it right now. It’s like breathing. It feels similar to that. It’s like eating.
How do you normally decide what to work on next?
It’s really simple: if I didn’t do that project, can I keep going without it? How are they planning it? How does the director like to work? Is it worth it to invest yourself, and can you do that without becoming its servant? It’s not that I don’t consider the external framework: whether the director is seasoned or new, whether the content holds possibility, or whether the story persuades me. I do, but it’s also not an absolute. I try to have a meeting, which is also to try and decide on the spot what their intentions are. How determined are they? Does it all make sense? Recently, for In Our Prime, the team met at noon and I made the decision to do it while drinking alcohol with them into the next morning. [laughs] So what can I tell you? I do it because I want to do it. After Oldboy, I wanted to wait a while before doing another film, but I did Springtime because I liked it. It’s like when you’re hiking in winter. It’s cold and rainy. You come upon a guesthouse and put down your backpack and slide your hand into your parka, onto the warm bottom of your neck. This is what I had said in an interview at the time. It’s that kind of feeling. I know this because I’ve done it.
I think walking the plank comes down to me loving acting. It’s because I love it so much. And now that I’m at where I’m at, it’s broadened my understanding a little bit: mental strength is just as important as the dreams that propel you. More than ever, from here on out, I want to explore more genres, make more movies, and make things that are seen on the world stage. There are all these different lives that I could express, and I’m overflowing with that desire. But you keep getting older and grow more tired. How can I put this? It’s not confidence without reason. The desire to dig deeper into more characters and express something a little richer is growing bigger, day by day.
Is there a compulsion to change, sometimes drastically, from performance to performance?
I don’t have a compulsion to change. The variations come out of the projects themselves. It has to be different because the stories we’re telling and the characters I’m portraying are different. The circumstances are different. The environments in which these people grew up are different. The situation of any person is different. Since I’m always immersed in it, that’s an organic byproduct.
What sets you apart, however, is that you have the means to sell it. You possess the range. Is there something you have yet to try? What do your future prospects look like right now?
I haven’t decided on my future work. Right now, I’m looking out to sea. I really like being at home and resting. I’m thinking about my health, which I was really drawing energy from. I’m also exercising now. After recharging again, I will be able to do the next work. It’s only possible when we can rest. And, again, I don’t have a compulsion to show a different side of myself just because it’s different from the kind of work I’ve done already. Of course, it’s not right to approach a character that you’ve become typecast in either. I just fully accept any character a writer writes or a director pursues if they feel truthful with me in it, and if they show me new possibilities.
In the interviews that ran after Big Bet came out, they wrote how, after that show, I “put on the brakes.” Now I’m finding out that, instead of looking back on everything with a break, I’m being invited to this film festival in which to do that. It’s with this retrospective and everything that I’m given the opportunity to really look back, and I’m feeling a lot of things. It feels like a new beginning, looking towards the future. How do I best describe it… Should we call it a “blinding dream”? It feels like I’m catching my breath right now at base camp. It’s nice. What the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival is giving me right now is a huge stimulus. It’s proving to be a great stimulus for my future activities. It’s a really valuable opportunity in which to come back to my senses, reflecting on what I will be reflecting on, and pointing out the things I need to fix in order to move forward. Again, I’m very thankful. The directors I’ve worked with have all been buying me lots of alcohol. [laughs] I’ve received all the phone calls, even from Park Chan-wook, who’s really busy at the moment. It was so nice to talk on the phone and feel that friendship. Now that I think about it, quite a long time has passed since I worked on Oldboy. Nevertheless, getting on the phone with so many people cheering me on, I want to express my gratitude.
Simple is best, I suppose, so I’ll just say that you’re a great actor. And one of a kind.
I feel so embarrassed, really. We have actors like Shin Goo. At 90, Lee Soon-jae still performs onstage. That title belongs to actors’ actors who have walked such respectable paths in their lives—not me. I’m not being humble for nothing. The structure of it, honoring certain careers and a certain level of fame, is a bit awkward to me. To be honest, I feel a little awkward about that kind of reporting. That’s the most honest thing I can say about it. But I am grateful. To that end, BIFAN has been a great stimulus to me and given me the encouragement to work even harder as an actor.