A favourite collaborator of many internationally acclaimed filmmakers including Park Chan-wook (The Vengeance Trilogy), Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) and Kim Jee-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters), Song Kang-ho has quite rightly become one of the most highly sought-after character actors working in South Korea today.
Born in the Southern South Korean city of Gimhae in 1967, Song never trained professionally as an actor due to the lack of opportunities in the arts in all but the most cosmopolitan areas of his home country, but was bitten by the bug after joining theatre groups upon leaving school and serving his mandatory military service.
After breaking through with Kim Jee-woon’s dark drama The Quiet Family in 1998 and Hollywood-style blockbuster Shiri in 1999 (both coincidentally also making a name for pre-Oldboy Choi Min-sik), Song began booking more prominent roles that made the most of his unique talents as a performer. While he has impressed in a variety of straight dramatic roles, including in DMZ (demilitarized zone) thriller Joint Security Area and WWII heist movie Age of Shadows, it is usually when he incorporates some element of comedy to counterpoint the tragedy in his performances that he makes the most impact. He is one of a rare group of actors that doesn’t need to try and be funny; with his wide smile and perfectly-honed timing he just is, and he knows just how far to push the comedy of his characters in service of a wider story as well as when to turn on a dime and bring things crashing back to Earth. For instance, both The President’s Barber and A Taxi Driver deconstruct traumatic events in recent South Korean history, but through the unique point of view of an affable, well-meaning but not too bright everyman each time played by Song, the drama is heightened dramatically when his character cannot make a joke of the situation anymore.
His most successful characters are often oddballs and outsiders, falling short of their true potential (family embarrassment Gang-du in The Host), blundering through their life (the dumb luck “The Weird” seems to survive by in The Good, The Bad, the Weird) or occasionally they are extremely adept but simply underestimated (dishevelled tech genius Namgoong in Snowpiercer). Whatever layers he develops for his characters, whatever fascinating flaws, Song’s screen persona is invariably earnest, the people he plays always relatable and compelling.
How do you pick just a handful of roles to accurately reflect this unique Korean actor’s eclectic near-three decade career to date? It has been tough, but with the one caveat of picking a different director for each film, here is a selection of Song Kang-ho’s 3 Career-Defining Performances.
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1. Memories of Murder (2003)
Memories of Murder was Song Kang-ho’s first collaboration with Bong Joon-ho and a large reason for his current stardom. If you’re talking about his finest performance to date, it’s a tough call between this and Parasite. In this true crime mystery he plays Detective Park, one of a trio of inept cops desperately trying to apprehend a serial killer in rural South Korea. Song strikes just the right balance between humour and darkness as he resorts to increasingly bizarre and desperate means to bring a killer to justice.
He is a completely inept and ineffectual example of law-enforcement, making one wrong accusation after another, and utterly convinced of his ability to “see through” suspects. Although, in the end, even he has to admit that he has failed; while looking into the final suspect’s eyes he admits that: “I don’t know”. With this role Song gets to be funny and goofy, stumbling around and making mistakes while the collective failures of the police force result in more tragic deaths. His clownish persona and misplaced confidence hides insecurity and deep sadness for the women and girls they fail to save, largely portrayed through micro-expressions on Song’s face.
It’s this final admission of failure that cements Detective Park’s character in your mind, as this sincere doofus is elevated to the level of tragic hero. He starts his journey breaking off an interrogation to watch cheesy soap operas with his murder suspect, before not-so-subtly checking out dudes at the sauna because of his misguided theory that the man he is hunting must be hairless because of a lack of evidence left on victims’ bodies, but he ends up in a state of utter despair, standing lost and hopeless in the rain with the unsolved case haunting him for the rest of his days.
The film’s post-script set years later after Detective Park has retired from the police and gone into sales sees him return to the original crime scene to be told by a little girl that another man had been looking in the same place earlier. Convinced he has just missed the killer, he eagerly asks what he looked like, to which she replies “ordinary-looking”. In one of the great final shots in cinema, the camera holding on Song’s face, cogs whir behind his eyes as he stares into the audience of ordinary Koreans watching the film as if trying to pick out one in the tens of millions.
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2. Thirst (2009)
In Park Chan-Wook’s inventive horror film Thirst, Song Kang ho’s Sang-hyun is a Catholic priest with wavering faith who becomes a vampire after selflessly volunteering for an experimental vaccine trial that might help prevent a new and deadly virus from becoming a pandemic. As his vampirism overcomes the disease, he is seen as a miraculous, saintly figure but must fight both his own dark urges and tangle with another creature of the night who has far fewer moral scruples than him.
Previously given antagonist roles in Park’s Joint Security Area and Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Song is given a lead role which is nuanced and contradictory and far from being a straight down the line hero. Sang-hyun is forced to kill and drink blood to survive, but he at least has enough morality left within him to feel pretty bad about doing it.
Song undergoes a far more physical transformation here as his character has to go through both bodily and spiritual agony. He is very far from his usual stumbling, clownish routine and unusually lacks any visible sense of humour other than the darkly ironic, being alternately still and restrained and animalistic when his hunting instincts take over. Everyone knows being a vampire automatically makes you sexier and he definitely has sex appeal here as he drinks blood to keep the debilitating symptoms of his disease at bay, not to mention that the act also brings on a kind of sexual re-awakening, his newfound lust and hunger acting as a constant, sinful reminder of his lapsing faith.
The story itself is a deeply tragic fable and truly operatic in its themes. It is all about the battle between faith and pragmatism, morality and the instinct to survive. Sang-hyun eventually realises that the most lasting thing he can do is to sacrifice himself and in the process make sure the deadly virus and his bloodthirsty sexual partner/hunting mate Tae-ju dies with him. Rather than the grandstanding final flourish this might have been in another actor’s hands, it is the stillness he imparts on his character, the resigned half-smile as he patiently awaits the inevitably rising sun while casually thwarting every attempt Tae-ju makes to hide from daylight, that gives the scene such a bittersweet poignancy.
3. Broker (2022)
There’s no getting around this: Song’s character in Broker steals and sells babies. So why do we still love him?
Playing sad-sack laundromat owner Sang-hyeon, who runs a black market business with his partner who volunteers at the local church, they aim to profit from the parents who anonymously deposit their unwanted children in the church’s “baby box”. But their impersonal, purely business arrangement becomes much more complicated when one of the mothers comes back and insists on travelling with them to ensure her baby gets the best life possible
Song has been part of a lot of dysfunctional screen families over his career, from The Quiet Family to The Host through Parasite. Broker‘s is a non-biological found family made up of child smugglers, an unready young mum and a kid hanger-on, but over the course of their journey they come to care for each other every bit as much as a more traditional family unit, particularly in the scenes where they are simply hanging out and talking in cheap hotel rooms. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda, one of the few non-Korean filmmakers Song has worked with, is extremely well-versed in exploring the dynamics of unconventional families and societal outcasts, and he entrusted the actor with a gift of a lead role to bring the debate around Korean adoption culture to life.
Sang-hyeon is one of Song Kang-ho’s more complicated and most likeable protagonists, cheery on the surface but really a fundamentally sad guy. He puts on a brave face for everyone, is quick to joke and to pretend that he has everything worked out, but really he is insecure and full of doubts, doing what he does partly to forget mistakes he made in the past with his own family.
Song acts as the linchpin of this unlikely group, his protagonist planning out their next objective and making sure everyone receives their fair share but in reality avoiding thinking too much about his own lot in life. In the end, he is the beating heart of this unusual family with oodles of chemistry with each and every one of them, all who look to him for guidance. For the sheer warmth, humour and depth he brought to his role, Song was finally and well-deservedly awarded the Best Actor prize at Cannes in 2022; hopefully the first of many major international accolades he will receive in the years to come.
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Song Kang-ho has shown himself to have unbelievable range in his fruitful creative collaborations with some of the brightest lights in Korean filmmaking. Whether international projects like Snowpiercer result in more films in the English language, or whether he needs such opportunities while he remains such a big star in his home country, remains to be seen. It will likely depend on the ongoing career trajectories of trusted directors, particularly Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook, and where they are working the next time they put out the call for a scene-stealer or a sad clown.