Interview with Yu Hojin - FISM Grand Prix

Interview by Walter Rolfo (research conducted by Aldo Ghiurmino) at the Masters of Magic Convention (Turin, Italy - May 12, 2023)

Credits: Pictures provided by Masters Of Magic and FISM Archives

Walter Rolfo: It's a truly special honor to have you here because we are about to meet a unique artist. Consider this, he was the first Asian artist to win the Grand Prix at Fism, the second youngest ever, and also the youngest magician to win the "Magician of the Year" award from the Academy of Magical Art at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. But these are just some of his great awards. Those who know me know that I always like to present the man first and then the artist. As an artist, what can you say about Yu Hojin? If you think that at not even twenty years old, he became the number one in the world, it means that as an artist, there is so much. But what strikes me the most is that many times talent, elegance, and class cannot be separated. Moreover, he is one of the kindest, most approachable, humble, simple, and professional artists I have ever met. We all know Yu Hojin as a great artist, but I am happy and honored to introduce the man behind the artist. I'll start by sharing an anecdote: I know that your dad wasn't happy with you being a magician, and you used to secretly order magic tricks on the internet. If your dad intercepted them when the mailman arrived, he would throw them away. So, you practiced magic secretly in the bathroom to learn. Then, you reached a compromise, and your dad said, "Okay, you can be a magician if you promise me to become the number one in the world," and you did it. How was your beginning, and how important was this push from your father?


Yu Hojin:  At the beginning, my dad really didn't want me to do magic because in Korea in 2001, magic shows weren't common, and it was something that people of my dad's generation didn't want to do or see. So, my dad thought I couldn't make a career out of it. The first time I saw a magic trick, I said, "Wow, incredible," so I told my dad, "I want to become a magician." He said, "No," but I kept asking, "No, no, when I grow up, I really want to be a magician." He got really angry, so I stopped asking for permission and started practicing secretly in the bathroom because it was the only place where I could practice alone. There was a mirror, and nobody would disturb me... I don't know, maybe my dad thought I was doing something else... Maybe my dad thought I was going blind.


WR: Your mom also played an important role. I am always fascinated by people who see things go on for thousands of years, and then suddenly they have an idea that nobody else on the planet has ever had. Yu Hojin, in some way, at twenty years old, you changed the way magic was done. Before you, Korean magic was characterized by speed, rhythm, energy, bam bam. Instead, you created a completely different, intimate, emotional, and much deeper act. The story goes that your mom, after watching a very skilled Korean magician doing manipulation (An Ha Lym), said, "It seems like an art that shows great skill, but not much magic." What was the creative process that led you to innovate magic? Because you truly are an innovator.


YH: It's incredible that you know this story. I am a huge fan of An Ha Lym. If he hadn't existed, maybe my Fism act wouldn't have existed either, and An Ha Lym didn't just inspire me, but he inspired artists all over the world. He started using color changes of cards on stage, and I started using those techniques in the same way... I watched his videos a hundred times, every day, and thought, "Wow! I want to be like him, I want to become like him!" I couldn't show magic to my dad, but I could show it to my mom. In the beginning, I showed her a lot of magic, started showing these acts and said, "Look, this is incredible." But my mom said something that made me think. She said, "Is this magic or juggling?" Of course, it's magic, but my mom said it was too fast and she couldn't understand it. At that moment, as a magician who knows the principles, I knew how difficult what I was doing was, but maybe for the audience, it could be something too fast or too repetitive... from that point, I started thinking about showing manipulation, making it look like real magic. That's how my FISM act was born.


WR: A very interesting theme is the contamination of the arts because magic for its own sake is a fascinating game of prestige, but when it is contaminated by other arts, it becomes poetry, it becomes art. So, you closely followed many arts related to magic, and I know that the performance of the Korean figure skater Kim Yuna also influenced you. How can a figure skater transform a magician into a better artist?


YH: How can one become a better magician? I don't know what answer to give you... I myself always think, "How can I improve?" The only certainty I have in magic is that I'm sure there are no certainties, but I know that there are many wrong paths. I think that even though I don't know what the right answers are, I definitely don't want to go in the wrong direction. So, what are the wrong paths? One wrong path is certainly when we become lazy, thinking that no one will notice if I haven't practiced much and have been lazy – it will still work – but "no," they will notice. What I always try to think is: do I want to be lazy? Or do I want to try to give my best? If I decide to try to be a better performer, I think: "I want something difficult through which I want to become even better." If we become lazy, I think we don't deserve to become good magicians on stage.


WR: In life, being lazy never pays off. So, the question is, how many hours a day did you practice to reach the World Championship, and how many hours a day do you still practice now?


YH: I started doing magic in 2001, and in 2003, I saw the Korean magician Eol Gyeol Lee win an award at Fism. I said to myself, "Okay. I want to be the next Fism winner," and I began creating acts and participating in competitions whenever I could. I knew that I couldn't get on stage and get paid right away, but I wanted to be on stage to show the audience what I had prepared. So, there was only one way I could get on stage and perform: by entering competitions. It was free, and I could be on stage even if I wasn't fully ready or very skilled. Moreover, the judges could give me advice, and most importantly, I could perform in front of an audience.

Starting from 2005, I began competing in contests, eight times in total, and I never won any awards. However, I was very happy because I could practice in front of an audience. Some judges took me aside and said, "Why do you keep doing competitions? You are not a good magician. Stop competing and go perform for children." I was very confused because I wanted to compete to try and improve. Perhaps those judges thought those things only because I hadn't won any awards. So, I said, "Okay, let's do something that can win," and I created the Fism act in 2008. I practiced for five years, for more than 13 hours a day.

I did it not because I wanted to win or because I wanted to be better than anyone else, but simply because I had a lot of fun. I enjoyed practicing, training, and creating new magic. Sometimes, young magicians ask me, "How could you practice for more than 5, 10, 13 hours a day?" and I respond, "How can you play video games or stay on the computer for more than 13 hours a day? If video games make you happy and you play them all day, the same goes for me and magic." Sometimes, we need to change our way of thinking, our perspectives. I simply practiced by saying, "I want to make it better, I want to make it perfect." Also, if I play while I practice, then I will definitely enjoy it. This small thing changed my life.


WR: One thing that leaves a lasting impression about your act is the music; when we hear the music from your act, magic enthusiasts automatically associate it with Hojin's performance. How did you choose the music? And then, "Princess Mononoke" by Joe Hisashi, one of the pieces you use in your Fism act, is the soundtrack of an animated movie. Does it hold any significance for you? How did you make these choices? How important is music in a magic act?


YH: That's a great question. Ever since I was little, I loved listening to music played on the piano. Let me tell you the story behind the second track, the one by Yiruma. I love animals, and I've always had dogs, cats, and birds. When they were little, I had to take care of them, and one time, while I was searching for music on YouTube to help my little pets fall asleep, I found a one-hour video. I played it while I was practicing. Suddenly, in the playlist, Yiruma started playing "River Flows in You." The music was so beautiful and perfectly suited my act. I was truly amazed by this music; it wasn't just beautiful; it also carried a lot of emotions. So, I decided to use that music for my Fism act.

As for the music in the first part of the act, you're right, it comes from a Japanese anime. I chose it because, when I started working on my Fism act, my master had Japanese origins, even though he had been living in Korea for a long time. I wanted to incorporate a part of my life into my Fism act, so I searched for Japanese piano music, and I found this piece that became a part of the first section of my Fism act.


WR: So, you're not a part-time magician; you're a magician all the time. When you're an artist, when you have a goal to achieve, it becomes an integral part of your life, almost an obsession. When you have a passion and a goal to reach, you can't compartmentalize it in specific moments; it becomes fascinating that Hojin lives and breathes magic all the time. So even when he's listening to music for his little pets, that music stays in his heart because his mind is connected and focused on becoming the number one.


YH: Yes, I agree; I'm always thinking about magic. Sometimes I wish I could be normal, but everything I do, I think, "Maybe this could create magic," "Ah, maybe I can create an act with this music." When I go to a concert with my girlfriend, and there's something truly beautiful and impactful happening, everyone is enjoying it, but I have my phone out, saying, "Wait, let me write this down, it could be good." My girlfriend says, "What are you doing? Just enjoy the show," and I say, "No, no, wait, let me write it down"... Yes, sometimes I really wish I could be normal.


WR: Let's say that all magicians would like to be normal: because... we are not normal. Another thing that struck me is when you said, "I wanted to put something of myself in my act," meaning that the music you chose wasn't beautiful just because it was nice music, but because it spoke about you. So while you performed, you were simultaneously telling your life story. How much of yourself is in this act?


YH: My Fism act is all about me. In July 2001, the first magic I saw, after school on my way home, was a card manipulation act. It seemed truly amazing to me, and at that moment, I said, "Wow, I want to become a great magician," a great magician with cards. I believe this is the reason why I started investing my entire life into my Fism act. After the first competitions, I began to find many friends who helped me build my act, and I started performing this act all over the world. Over time, so many memories have been added to my Fism act that now it's a part of my life, it's like my little child.


WR: Your act has the characteristic of extreme slowness, which I believe is the true secret of Magic because when we do magic and go too fast, people say, "Ah, okay, it's nice, but I didn't understand what happened because it was too fast." But when we are extremely slow, that's when we win, paradoxically. The simpler, slower, and cleaner the movements are, the more people are amazed. Everything done quickly doesn't win. Do you remember the L&L publishing videos? There's a video of Richard Ross where he explained his routine with rings and said to do the linking of the rings very slowly because doing it slowly gives people the idea that the metal is melting. He said something that I repeated every day when I did rings; he said, "When you think you are slow, stop, because you are still too fast. Think that you have to be even slower." And I swear, every time I linked the rings, I would say, "I'm too fast," and in fact, the slower I went, the more people were amazed. What do you think? When you perform, what is the underlying theme, when you showcase your Fism act?


YH: Well, it depends on the day. Before stepping on stage, I usually think, "Let's make the audience happy." Before performing my act at Fism, I said a prayer, praying to have a good audience, praying to have the energy to make the audience happy that evening. Since I was always nervous, this helped me a lot. Also, on stage, I always think about doing real magic. I believe in what I do, I don't think, "Okay, this is just a card, what a nice palm I'm doing, it looks really good." Though I must admit, I do that sometimes... only sometimes, though... Normally, I truly believe in it. For example, if a card drops, I think, "How can I solve this problem?" Then, when I solve it, I am happy, and I try to give the audience my happiness. I believe that if you want to make your audience happy, if you want to make them smile, you have to be happy yourself.


WR: But is it true that when you rehearse, you speak out loud and close your eyes?


YH: I was a very young and shy child, introverted, afraid of meeting and talking to people, but there was one thing I loved so much: I wanted to be on stage and perform for an audience, even though it made me very nervous. I know it may be hard to believe, but even today, when I practice and think that I'll have people watching me afterward, I start feeling anxious. So I started thinking, "How can I solve this problem?" And then I started practicing with my eyes closed. It's very challenging to practice with your eyes closed because when you close your eyes, you lose your balance, your stability. I thought that if I could find my balance with my eyes closed, I would be the calmest and most confident magician in the world.

Then I started speaking during my practice because, when I saw some magicians performing incredible and astonishing magic effects, sometimes I thought, "This is a beautiful effect, but why don't I feel anything?" Then I realized that it was because there was no meaning, no motivation, no reason behind it. For example, you can produce cards, cards, cards, then do a nice fan and a smile. It could be boring, but if you can describe out loud what you are doing while performing and maintain the same expressions you have when executing the act, but without the music, it becomes more interesting and natural.

So, during my Fism act preparation, for three hours, I would talk and narrate, then for 30 minutes, I would perform with my eyes closed. After that, I would continue for another three hours without music and then another three hours with the music as in the actual act. This method helped me a lot; it was essential to talk and converse with myself because when you practice in this way, you realize that sometimes something doesn't match with the words you say. And that's when you start to understand what you need to remove from the act and what you need to adjust.


WR: I understand these things, having the fortune of having special artists as friends, and I increasingly realize that luck doesn't exist, and nothing happens by chance. I know it's a tough question because you're a very private person, but what do you think is your best quality, your best talent?


YH: Let me think for a moment... I believe very much in myself, and I never give up. When I was a child in middle school, one of my teachers changed my life. He said, "You guys are not obligated to study... it's your life, it depends on you. I can't promise that studying hard will lead to success, but I'm sure of one thing: if you do nothing, nothing will come to you, no miracle."

So, going back to your question, I always think, "If I do this, something magical can happen." I believe that this is my greatest talent.


WR: On July 22, 2013, Hojin had a terrible car accident and woke up three days later in the hospital with a broken femur and various injuries. Despite this, he still wanted to be on stage and kept all his international commitments. Think about it, it was crazy; he moved around in a wheelchair – he couldn't walk – then he dressed up and became Hojin the artist, got on stage, maintained a crazy posture required by his act, and during the time of his act, he healed. Then, after the performance, he continued living in a wheelchair. What was the reason behind this? Was it love for the audience?


YH: At that moment, it wasn't just about the love for the audience because after the accident, the doctor told me that I wouldn't be able to walk for at least six months. So, I couldn't be on stage, and that upset me a lot. I thought, "No, no, I can do it," and I started training hard to walk. Then I was contacted by "Magic Live" to perform one month later, and they thought I couldn't go to Las Vegas from Korea because of the accident. For me, it was more of a challenge... I thought, "Okay, I can overcome it, I can do it." So, I went to Magic Live in a wheelchair, got on stage, and I made it.


WR: In an interview, you said a beautiful thing: "In general, people consider magic as entertainment or business, but if a performance can generate a touching emotional response in the audience, then it can become art." What is the secret to evoke emotions in the audience through a magic act?


YH: At the beginning, my Fism act didn't evoke emotions. In 2011, I participated in a competition (same music, same act) where I won the second prize. After the performance, an elderly lady showed me her tears, and I thought, "Did I do something wrong? Why is she crying because of me?" I couldn't speak or understand English well, and she said, "Thank you very much for your act; you made me cry." I was confused, thinking, "Maybe she mistook me for someone else," but I was there, and I wondered, "Why is she crying?" I thanked her and started thinking, maybe magic can really touch people's hearts and make them happy. Perhaps they can cry out of happiness, so I started thinking about how I can perform and create an emotion. So, I stopped watching videos of other magicians and started watching different types of artists. I also began watching movies that made me cry, and I started writing down how I felt when I watched these films. Then, I tried to incorporate those feelings into my act. That's the method I used.


WR: For example, which film inspired you? What inspired you?


YH: There are two films. One is Titanic. When I watched it, I understood that the film was very emotional, and I was crying not just because I was sad, but also because it was something beautiful. Another film is The Lion King. Viewers immerse themselves in their own memories and emotions while watching films. I have been watching that film since I was 5 or 6 years old, and whenever I rewatch it, I think, "Oh, I wish I could go back to being a child and experience those same feelings and emotions again." I can relate a bit to Simba; he creates a lot of problems, but he wants to be a king... and that's me. That film is one of my remedies when I'm nervous. Many people ask me, "How did you prepare for the final performance in 2012?" I trained for 5 years, and when I arrived in Blackpool, I even practiced in my hotel room. Then, the day before my performance, I didn't practice because I thought, "I have done everything I could, and I'm ready." I knew that if I kept training, I would get nervous. So, I prepared everything, took a walk, ate well, and the weather was beautiful... then I watched The Lion King and felt at ease. After that, I went on stage at Fism.

I believe this is a good method. When you are nervous, think of something that made you happy as a child. For example, when you go to a place where you lived a long time ago, you will be excited because you have memories there, and your heart will say, "Wow"... if you find something like that to think about when you are nervous, it helps a lot.


WR: In 2013, you became "The Manipulator" in the show "The Illusionist 2.0," and you were very young, around 21-22 years old. You performed in Australia, Mexico, New Zealand, Dubai... a total of 54 performances around the world. Then you went on tour for another 7 years before deciding to stop. How was this experience? How much did it help you to travel the world so young and discover different cultures, stories, and lives? How did it make you mature as a man and as an artist?


YH: I believe that was one of the most incredible moments of my life. I started with "The Illusionist" in 2013, performing at the Sydney Opera House, then on Broadway in New York and London's West End. They were enormous stages, and I knew I didn't deserve to be on those platforms, but "The Illusionist" brought me there. It was a great honor, and I encountered various cultures, each one different from the other, but what made me happiest was the money... it's true.


WR: So, after showing all these things to your father and the earnings you were making, what did your father say about magic?


YH: ...Give me more!


WR: On AGT (America's Got Talent), we admired you as a close-up magic artist. You are famous for your stage act, but you are probably transforming, gaining fame for your close-up magic as well. What's the next step, and why?


YH: I have seen many excellent magicians performing close-up magic, and I wanted to do close-up magic on AGT because it was a challenge. Doing stage magic there would have been easier than doing close-up, but I knew I could do it. What's my next step? I am creating my own show. My next goal is to showcase my show around the world.


WR: Can you give us a sneak peek of this show?


YH: I can tell you one thing: the name of the show is "Blackout" because this word has many meanings in the world, and I have experienced many "blackouts" in my life, and I want to share them with the audience.


WR: Can I ask you what it means that you have experienced many "blackouts" in your life?


YH: For example, when you are on stage, and the lights go on, you have one life, and when the lights go off, you have a different life. Even when you close your eyes, there's a "blackout," and you enter the world of dreams. Likewise, sometimes your brain can shut down, and everything goes dark. So, each one of us has our own "blackout." It seemed like an interesting concept, and I thought, "Let's use magic to tell this story in my show."


WR: ...because imagine this young man who, at the age of 19, received the gift of being on top of the world, being number one, having so many people around telling you, "You're great, you're great"... the risk of getting a big head is enormous. However, I have known Hojin for many years, and not only has he not let success get to his head, but each year, he becomes even more humble and available, as if success has only made him better. Many times in life, we fall into arrogance, how do you manage to be so special?


YH: The money... Just kidding. Obviously, people only see my best sides, as it happens on social media, where we take photos, choose one out of a million, and post it, and people say, "Wow, nice, fantastic." But behind that single photo, there are millions that we don't want to share, that we want to keep to ourselves, that we want to hide. So, people, seeing only that aspect that I present publicly, say, "Oh, you're very humble, you have a great personality." In reality, in the past, I was very arrogant. For example, when I won the Grand Prix, I was often the guest of honor, and everyone complimented me, and I was full of myself and proud, thinking, "I deserve all this because I won the Grand Prix." Before winning Fism, if I saw an interesting magician, I would think, "Wow, what can I learn from him?" After winning Fism, I started judging, "Ah, he's not good, ah, he's terrible, he can't win." Then I changed... losing friends due to my bad personality and experiencing a lot of negative experiences, I missed opportunities that could have changed my life, and I even had family problems because of this. I was in a bad situation, so I thought, "How can I go back to being the old Hojin?" I changed a lot... changing only one thing, I tried to be cute and kind. There's a magician I deeply respect, Luis De Matos, who once came to me and said, "Something's not right, isn't it?" And I thought, "How does he know?" He told me, "Listen, our lives are not perfect, no matter what you do, problems will be there, but if you know what they are... you can try to solve them, you practically already have, and remember one thing, be kind to everyone." This changed me a lot.