Director’s films, not sunglasses, cause a stirKorean-Japanese director Yoichi Sai’s first visit to Seoul in 1993 was a nightmare. Mr. Sai, known to Koreans as Choi Yang-il, had to duel with reporters who made an issue of his insistence on wearing sunglasses at a press conference. In a feeble counterattack, he said, “Then, what about your former President Park Chung Hee, who also liked to wear sunglasses?”
The director, who earned a reputation for his hard-boiled portrayals of violence, sex and social outcasts, figured that Seoul would not extend him a hearty welcome. But he never imagined that his sunglasses would cause an uproar.
Last Friday, the director was pleased to find that times had changed. In Korea for a retrospective celebrating the 20th year of his debut film, “Mosquito on the 10th Floor,” Mr. Choi mingled with young cinephiles whose interest was his films, not his accessories. Speaking before the press the next day, his first words were “I was just so happy to see young Koreans enjoying my old films that I drank the night away.”
Born into a pro-North Korean family in Nagano in 1949, Mr. Choi switched to a South Korean nationality in the late 1990s. That decision was the hot issue of the day.
“My changing nationality had nothing to do with ideology,” Mr. Choi said in Japanese. “Being a North Korean national in Japan brings many inconveniences to daily life, which was the reason I decided on a South Korean identity.”
Mr. Choi, who barely speaks Korean, added, “Korean-Japanese, who number 600,000 by now, act and think as individuals. They don’t think of their identities and nationalities every single day.” Then he asked jokingly, “Isn’t this a press conference about my movies, not on myself?” But he added that his nationality affected his film career, in that he came to be interested in society’s outsiders because he wasn’t an ethnic Japanese in Japan.
After entering the film industry at age 26 as a part-time assistant, Mr. Choi found himself enchanted by the big screen in only three days.
“I was just loafing around, young and jobless,” he said. “But at the same time, in my heart I had an urge to express myself. And movies came along.” Blessed to be under the tutelage of Japan’s acclaimed director Nagisha Oshima, Mr. Choi became an assistant for “The Empire of the Senses,” a controversial artistic work with explicit descriptions of sex. Referring to Mr. Oshima as a friend, Mr. Choi said, “The only thing that I learned from Mr. Oshima was how to drink and how to make friends. But no two things can be more important in our lives, after all.”
Mr. Choi’s 10 films are a long way from mainstream. Indeed, he conceded that whenever he started working with big-time producers, “a fight was bound to occur.
“I’m so grateful that there were always people who had money for this offbeat Adventure King,” said Mr. Choi, using his nickname. Most of the characters in his films are anti-heroes or social outcasts, running after or away from something. The humor that he blends into his work is their biggest attraction.
In “All Under the Moon,” his standout film on a Korean-Japanese taxi driver, viewers find themselves laughing during a scene when a taxi company owner sets his building on fire to kill himself. “To me, what’s sad is funny and what’s funny is sad,” Mr. Choi said. “The two emotions relate to each other and are naturally instilled in my film.”
by Chun Su-jin