One of the leading actors of his generation, Korea’s Choi Min-sik is tackling his first TV role in some 25 years, with Disney+ crime drama series “Big Bet.” Choi says the gamble was a challenge, but ultimately worth the risk.
While he has notched up iconic cinema roles in “Oldboy” “Shiri,” “I Saw the Devil,” Luc Besson’s “Lucy” and all-time Korean box office record holder “Roaring Currents,” Choi’s last significant TV role was in dark comedy “The Moon of Seoul” (aka “Seoul ui Dal”) in the 20th century’s pre-streaming era.
Choi says that the changes in the TV industry are palpable and mostly for the better.
“Dramas are now produced entirely in advance of broadcast. Before, we would have what we call ‘on-the-spot’ scripts. They would be literally written on the day of filming, which left very little time to memorize the lines,” Choi told Variety.
The shift to end-to-end production and binge-watching, Choi says, also does away with the old routine of changing Korean TV scripts to fit short-term audience reactions, which he considers to be a restriction on artistic expression. He cites his experience of watching Lars von Trier’s uncomfortable-to-watch film “Antichrist” at a festival.
“After the movie, people were debating about the film at bars nearby. I thought, this is how we should communicate to the public. The writer’s creative intention should be clearly expressed. Consumers now have a choice to watch the content or not. So, it’s not right to stop it before it’s even made,” he said. “With OTT platforms, we have so much more we can express and I think this is the right direction.”
His character in “Big Bet” is Cha Moosik, a small-time gambling mogul who experiences life’s highs and lows. Choi has an affinity for complex characters and makes a point of reflecting on and studying them intensely before taking them on.
“I’ve always worked this way. I need a clear idea of the character, context and background in my head and then it’ll work,” said Choi. Cha, though a ruthless villain, shows facets of kindness and loyalty throughout the story, aspects that appealed to Choi. “Moosik is very loyal to his desires and, as he chases them, [the audience] experiences turmoil through his ups and downs.”
That said, making “Big Bet” presented Choi with several difficulties. One of these was filming in The Philippines shortly after he had recovered from COVID. Another was the high proportion of English-language dialog.
“I had a complete understanding of the creative intent, so that wasn’t that a huge challenge. But I was stressed about how to portray Cha Moosik in the most convincing manner over the course of his life,” said Choi. “The English lines were challenging as it’s not something you can just memorize and spit out. I didn’t want to sound awkward, but good pronunciation wasn’t something I could achieve overnight.”
Choi did not receive formal English coaching on set, but credits fellow performers Son Suk-ku, Nico Antonio, Kim Min and Joey Albright who advised him on word choice and capturing nuance throughout the filming process.
The Filipino crew was also a help. “Almost every day, we’d see each other, joke around in simple English. And, once everything was set, we were able to understand each other right away.”
Although he has a minor role playing a Japanese in one episode of upcoming U.S. show “Paper Empire,” “Choi has no plans for further international outreach. Instead, he says his mission is to work with local directors to tell more Korean stories. “I live by the motto, ‘A caterpillar has to stick to its own tree’,” said Choi. “It’s meaningful and valuable that we’re seeing all these achievements such as ‘Parasite’ and ‘Squid Game,’ but my focus is to express the lives of human beings. In doing so, there’s no end [to this mission] is there?”
“And it’s better not to overstretch or the result could end up like [the beleaguered] Cha Moosik!,” Choi said.
While Choi says he still harbors ambitions to play a romantic lead, he will next be seen in occult thriller film “Pamyo,” in which he portrays a Fung Shui expert. Directed by Jang Jae Hyun (“Svaha: The Sixth Finger”), the film also stars Kim Go Eun (“Little Women”), Yoo Hae Jin (“The Night Owl”) and Lee Do Hyeon (“The Glory). Filming commenced in October last year. The completed picture, produced by Showbox, is expected to release in November.