Presto! A young Korean changes magic’s image

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Presto! A young Korean changes magic’s image

Until recently, magicians in Korea didn’t get much respect. Their trade was thought to be third-rate entertainment, little more than a way for itinerant peddlers to lure unsuspecting folks into buying some quack medicine.
But in just two years, one 21-year-old man has performed wonders to change society’s perception of magic.
With nimble hand motions, wit and professional showmanship, the spiky-haired Lee Eun-gyeol has generated a frenzy among the public that began two years ago, when he published a book on magic and first appeared on TV.
Mr. Lee was captivated by magic at an early age, and has since become one of the art’s biggest advocates. Today, he’s an expert at technical magic, employing his lightning-fast hands to wow crowds with simple props like coins and cards.
“I have never met anyone who didn’t enjoy magic,” said Mr. Lee, who looks like a typical 21-year-old with his spiked, blond-tipped haircut.
It wasn’t Mr. Lee’s idea to learn magic. When he was 15, his father enrolled him at a magic academy, thinking it would help him overcome his shyness. Not only did the lessons make him more outgoing, they laid the foundation for him to become Korea’s most popular magician. Already, Mr. Lee has won more prizes than any magician ever has in Korea.
In 2001, he grabbed first place at the World Magic Contest in Japan. Last year, he won the Grand Prix at the South African Magic Championship and swept three prizes at the Society of American Magicians Convention in Las Vegas.
Last month, he took second place in the manipulation category at the Federation Internationale des Societes Magiques ― nicknamed the “World Cup of Magicians” ― in the Hague, Netherlands.
Since his debut, a new crop of young magicians have followed in his path, but none has come close to him in terms of international awards.
Between contests, he gives shows locally, occasionally appears on TV shows, performs for commercials ― including for Korea’s state-run tobacco company ― and teaches the art of illusion at Bizmagic Academy.
“Magic has the longest history in the world because everybody, male or female, young or old, loves magic,” the young magician says. “Magic has no target audience, and there are still many aspects of it that are unexplored. So people will continue to be mesmerized by it.”
He says he can’t watch a two-hour movie without pondering how to work a specific scene into his spectacle. He can’t sit down at the dinner table for more than 10 minutes before his mind starts conjuring up new ways of using forks and spoons in his tricks. He feels an urge to perform with whatever he happens to be holding, be it a pair of sunglasses or a deck of cards.
“I had my fortune told three times,” he said. “Once by myself, and the other times through other people. All three results were the same: con artist. I’m not saying magicians are deceiving their audiences, but we are tricking their eyes and ears into believing they are witnessing the impossible.”
Loneliness is his job’s biggest downside; magic is not a social vocation, and requires long solitary stretches of time to hone and perfect one’s act.
“There are hard times, as I’m only human, because I’m always under pressure to come up with new tricks,” he says, “but I don’t consider them drawbacks. I take pleasure in the whole process, because that’s what being a magician is all about. To become the best, I have to enjoy the loneliness and the difficulties of creating new magic.”


by Seokhee Yoon

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