It takes an actor with considerable presence to play such legendary and memorable characters as Admiral Lee Sun-shin i The Admiral: Roaring currents, Mr. Baek at Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance or the doomed inventor Jang Yeong-sil in the historical drama Forbidden dreams. It’s hard not to focus on Choi Min-sik when he appears in a movie. It’s also true when he’s in the rare TV drama.
The actor has appeared in more than 30 films in his 30+ year career, but more than two decades have passed since he was seen on the small screen. This year, the actor surprised fans by returning to television with a starring role in the Disney+ drama Great effort aka Casino. In this drama, he plays the character Cha Moo-sik, a legend in Korea’s casino world.
Great effort is the story of a self-made man who doesn’t follow the rules. The first episodes of this drama jump back and forth in time to give some perspective on Moo-sik’s history, how he suffered as a child and eventually became a gambling mogul. It opens in 2015 when he is arrested in the Philippines and finds himself at a press conference, surrounded by reporters asking about murders he allegedly committed. He has nothing to say.
Then the story jumps back in time to show Moo-sik as a resourceful child, the son of a poor illiterate mother and a petty gangster who often spends time in prison. When he was temporarily in an orphanage, Moo-sik was already determined to better himself in life, enduring an attack by fire ants just to change his pocket. Despite gaps in his education, he manages to start a language academy, but when he gets a chance to open a casino, he jumps at it. It’s easy money, but it’s also illegal, and there’s only so long you can outrun the law.
Inevitably, his illegal trade forces him to flee the country, escaping to the Philippines where he soon hits rock bottom. That means he has to reinvent himself.
Moo-sik is a character that is hard to come by, and that may have been what lured Choi back to the small screen. While it’s hard not to like and root for a character who uses his wits to overcome such oppressive odds, he’s so very wrong. A shrewd businessman and loyal to his allies, he also lies to his family. He gambles to excess and wastes a fortune. He lets others take the rap for his crimes. He is capable of violence, but does that mean he committed the murders he is accused of? Viewers will have to watch the series to find out how flawed this character really is and if they can forgive him.
The series is written and directed by Kang Yoon-sung, who won a Best New Director award at the 2018 Baeksang Arts Awards for his commercial hit The Outlaws and who also directed one season of the historical zombie TV series kingdom. With Moo-sik, he has created a complex ruthless character who repeatedly defies the odds.
The series also stars Son Suk-ku, last seen in My Liberation NotesLee Dong-hwi, last seen in Errorand Heo Sung-tae, who appeared in the drama Behind every star. The drama also features many talented character actors to round out the story, including Kim Roe-ha, Lee Kyu-hyung, Lee Moon-sik, and Kim Min-jae. The Disney+ drama airs on Hulu in the US.