Global Star Profiles: Song Kang-ho

by Meher Tatna May 22, 2020
Song Kang-ho

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When Parasite won the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes film festival by unanimous jury decision, director Bong Joon-ho went down on his knee to offer the trophy to his actor Song Kang-ho. The film went on to win four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director the following year, a first for a Korean film.

Song, who is South Korea’s most prominent actor, connects with his home country’s audiences in part because of his everyman persona. In 2019, he told IndieWire, “There are many handsome actors. I am not one of them.” The renaissance of South Korean cinema is largely due to his films – of which he has made more than 30 – from big-budget action movies to indies. Song has no interest in a Hollywood career. He told The Hollywood Reporter in 2019, “I've had some proposals from big Hollywood productions, but I have said no to all of them. Although I only make Korean films, helping these films be universal and have global influence is something that suits me better, I think, as an actor.”  

In the ensemble cast of Parasite, Song plays Kim Ki-taek, the father of a dirt-poor family that takes over the lives of its rich employers with unexpected and bloody consequences in a way that resonates with all the have-nots who see themselves in his desperation. That is his strength as an actor, that despite the anti-heroes and villains he has played, he makes his characters’ actions seem understandable if not forgivable.

Bong and Song have worked together on three other films, a collaboration that brings to mind similar ones between director and actor like Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, or Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson. “Working with Song has allowed me to be braver as a filmmaker and take on more difficult challenges,” Bong said at a press conference in Seoul. It is worth noting that their first two films together made Tarantino’s list of the ten best films of the last 25 years.

In Memories of Murder, his first partnership with Bong in 2003, Song played an incompetent detective who bends the law in pursuit of a serial killer. It is considered one of the best Korean films of all time. That was when he honed the skill of still being in the moment and acting naturally despite the meticulous planning of Bong’s shots which don’t allow for improvisation. Bong doesn’t believe in much rehearsal and shooting begins after one table read, Song told the LA Times. “It’s thrilling, but at the same time agonizing. I always expect the project will turn out great. However, to carry out my assignment and meet director Bong’s expectation, I have to put out my very best effort to address every detail that he hands out. So there’s always those two sides of the coin when you work with Bong Joon Ho: great and agonizing.”

Their second collaboration was 2006’s horror film The Host, for which Song won Best Actor at the Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong, portraying a lazy shopkeeper whose daughter is kidnapped by a monster. The English-language Snowpiercer with Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, and Ed Harris was their third film together in 2013, a science fiction story based on a graphic novel in which Song is the only character who speaks Korean. The film made $87 million worldwide and appeared on many critics’ year-end ten best lists in 2014. It has been adapted into a TV show by TNT to air in May 2020.

Born in Busan in 1967, Song worked in the theater as an actor without any formal training for a decade before he started his film career. His first appearance on film was as an extra in The Day a Pig Fell into the Well in 1996. Then he had a supporting role in a big hit, Kang Je-gyu’s 1999 spy action film Shiri in which he played a secret agent, but Song’s breakthrough film was Joint Security Area, released in 2000 and directed by Park Chan-wook. He plays one of a pair of North Korean soldiers who befriend their S. Korean counterparts at the DMZ. Song’s sympathetic portrayal of a North Korean as a human being, albeit an enemy, was hailed. His first leading role was in The Foul King, again in 2000, where he portrayed a bullied bank employee who becomes a wrestler and finds personal empowerment in the sport.

Other highlights in his career that show his range are Thirst, a 2009 horror film directed by Park Chan-wook in which he plays a Catholic vampire priest; Yang Woo-suk’s 2013 The Attorney, in which he plays a human rights lawyer, based on the life of South Korea’s president Roh Moo-hyun; 2015’s period film directed by Lee Joon-ik, The Throne, in which he plays a king that condemns his son to death; and 2017’s A Taxi Driver directed by Jang Hoon in which he plays the title character who is accidentally involved in a political uprising, but takes a stand and risks his life when he comes to sympathize with the cause of the protestors. This film became one of the most successful films at the box office in South Korea.

In 2014, Song told Collider, “The main reason for choosing a project is not really the renown of the director that’s making the project. I feel like it’s the fact of an actor to constantly want to do different things. I want to try new creative things and find refreshing stories. That’s how I’ve come to choose the roles that I’ve done.” 

Up next for Song is an aviation disaster film announced in May 2020 featuring prominent Korean stars Lee Byung-hun and Jeon Do-yeon, to be directed by Han Jae-rim of 2013’s The Face Reader. Song will play the investigator of a plane crash.