Now showingThirty years ago, Choi Gwang-shik was fresh out of the army and looking for work when his cousin asked him to draw the movie signboard for "Ben-Hur" at Gyeongbo Cinema. Since then, he has created endless signs for the modern movie classics.
Mr. Choi is one of the few signboard artists remaining in Korea. These days, most theaters in Seoul simply use glossy photoreproductions to announce their current films; but in the past, Mr. Choi was one of the most sought-after signboard artists.
"My first job paid 10,000 won," Mr. Choi says shyly in his basement studio inside Sungnam Cinema one afternoon. "Back then, less than 1,000 won could get a tray full of doughnuts in a downtown bakery, a movie with your girlfriend and the busride home. The money was always more than enough for me."
His studio near Samgakji, just south of Seoul Station, is small, about the size of an average storage room. It is tucked away on the way to the women's bathroom, under the theater's staircase. Filled with rusted palette knives and a few other bags of pigment powder that he uses to write the letters of the movie titles, the space looks like the typical painter's studio.
On one side of his old wooden table, gesso drips from the paint buckets have built up over the years, creating small mountains beside his discolored palette. When things get too overwhelming in the studio sometimes, Mr. Choi says that he likes to look at the gesso lumps, those strange, jagged shapes about the size of his clenched right fist. Once, he says, he got so curious he cut one lump in half with his army knife. "They really seem soothing to me," he says.
When his guest starts coughing from the strong odor of lacquer, he says, "I have been sniffing this stuff for the past 30 years, but I never went to a hospital for a checkup. Why should I waste my money on health care?"
There were times when it was protocol for all actors to come to the artists' studios, to introduce themselves to the staff while examining their faces on the signboard before the movie kicked off. In the '80s, Mr. Choi had up to seven assistants in his studio, helping with the work. Big-name singers, such as Na Hu-na, once hung out in his studio during breaks, getting their portraits touched up.
Sometimes the actors would slip a few bucks in assistants' pockets, secretly asking them to make their portraits larger than the other actors in the film. "If the artists thought the actor was too arrogant, we would eliminate his picture from the signboard and just write his name down on the actors' list," he says.
Such incidents were especially frequent among musicians. Some singers even threatened to call off the show if they thought their faces were too small compared to other musicians on the bill. Serena Kim, a popular female trot singer, once complained to the manager at the Dongyang Theater that her face was positioned too low on the poster. The signboard for the yearend music festival had already gone up outside the building and the show was to take place the next day. But the manager, who was a devoted fan of the attractive female singer, agreed to her request.
"In the driving snow, we took down the three-story signboard, stood the canvas against an overhead bridge and reworked the image just to move Kim's head more toward the center of the frame. Even now, I ask my wife to turn off the television whenever Kim appears."
Actors nowadays, however, are not even aware of Mr. Choi's existence or his murky basement studio. A number of young painters still knock on his studio door sometimes, asking for his assistance; but after suffering through the work, washing his paint buckets for a few months for little pay, they leave saying they have been drafted into the army.
"People have become more arrogant these days, very inhumane," he says clucking his tongue while stubbing out a cigarette in an ashtray. Lee Bong-geun, the projectionist at the Sungnam Cinema, says referring to Choi, "You can't beat him. He is the same old guy I've known for 20 years."
Most theaters now have switched to photoreproductions instead of paintings, driving most professional painters like him out of work.
A few of his closest friends emigrated to the United States, mostly New York. There, some made a lot of money by making public billboards on Broadway or creating magazine covers. But most of the artists formed a humble atelier in Samgakji, producing hyperrealistic landscape paintings for overseas calendar art. It's considered a disgrace for many former cinema artists, but compromises have to be made.
It's a struggle to keep their pride in these times. Mr. Choi had many good opportunities to do more respected work than painting movie signboards. In the late '60s, his onetime boss offered him work as a motel manager at Onyang Hot Springs, then an emerging tourist district. The boss even promised Mr. Choi his oldest daughter's hand in marriage. "An attractive girl, apparently," Mr. Choi fondly recalls.
But he refused to leave the theater. Instead, he chose to wash his pupil's brushes and learn more about the art of movie signboards.
At 59, he likes to reflect on the past -- sometimes too much. He talks fondly of the days when he used to visit Chungmuro cinemas with his artist friends, just to watch the amazing movie signboards that hung throughout what was long the major cinema district in Korea. When the Korean action film "Lim Kkeokjeong" opened in Gukdo Cinema in the mid-60s, he went to see the sign almost every day, and sat in front of the ticket booth.
Chungmuro was for years reserved for the top signboard artists, working on the top films. In the early-80's, Mr. Choi had a few movie signboards appear there. "South Pacific" was one of his first film posters to make it to Chungmuro. Every theater owner raved when Choi drew signboards for one of the first softcore pornographic movies made in Korea, "Mu-reupgwa Mureupsa-i" (Between the Knees, 1984). The image of the half-naked actress Lee Bo-hee smoking in bed after sex was so strikingly real he even got a call from the film regulatory board.
"Too obscene," they claimed.
If Mr. Choi worries about technology making him moot, he gives few signs of worry.
Clearing away the piles of movie posters on a stool he says, "I may skip a meal or two, but this is something I'll keep doing."
by Park Soo-mee
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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