This article was originally published on Subtitled Online November 2012.
A favourite of Park Chan-wook, having appeared in four of his films, and of Bong Joon-ho, having starred in two of his films – with one more (Bong’s English-language debut) in production – Song Kang-ho is, quite rightly, a highly sought-after character actor.
Born in South Korea in 1967, Song never trained professionally as an actor, but was bitten by the bug after joining amateur, then professional theatre groups after leaving school. While he has impressed in a variety of serious dramatic roles, including Park Chan-wook’s JSA: JOINT SECURITY AREA, SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE and THIRST, it is when he incorporates comedy in his performances that he makes the most impact. His characters are often oddballs, falling short of their true potential and simply blundering through life. But his performances are always earnest, his characters relatable and compelling. What follows are Song Kang-ho’s top three performances of his career so far.
MEMORIES OF MURDER (South Korea, 2003)
MEMORIES OF MURDER is Song Kang-ho’s first collaboration with Bong Joon-ho, and is probably his finest performance to date. Playing Detective Park, one of a trio of inept cops 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 proclaims: “I don’t know”.
It’s this final admission of failure that cements Detective Park’s character in your mind, as this sincere, but idiotic, goofball is elevated to the level of tragic hero. Memories Of Murder gets characterisation just right, and these memorable, blundering characters and their development over the course of the film is what really invests you in this pitch-black, comic murder mystery.
THE HOST (South Korea, 2006)
In his second collaboration with Bong Joon-ho, Song plays one of the all-time great caring but useless fathers, Park Gang-du. Gang-du spends his days dozing off at the food stand run by his father, whom he continually disappoints, and sets a less-than-desirable example for his young daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung). When Hyun-seo is taken by a river monster (that old chestnut), the squabbling Park family must work together to find and save her, dodging encounters with the creature and corrupt government officials on the way, and Gang-du must prove himself a real hero and a worthy father, son and brother to his despairing family.
On his own he wouldn’t be particularly memorable, but as part of the hugely dysfunctional Park family unit, Gang-du is not only hilarious, but makes a real emotional connection with the viewer as he becomes increasingly distraught at his inability to save his only child. Once again Song’s character is humorous on the surface – a useless slob and an annoyance to his whole family (not exactly classic hero-on-a-quest material), but he’s masking a real vulnerability and desire to get this one thing right – he needs to save Hyun-seo and have a second stab at being a good dad to become whole again.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD (South Korea, 2008)
Kim Jee-woon’s slick “Eastern-Western” film is a part-parody, part-remake, part-reimagining of Sergio Leone’s iconic THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. Apart from being a fine film in its own right, it really showcases what a great physical actor Song is – his exaggerated “Weird” character is like something out of a Charlie Chaplin film. An opportunistic coward, he is forever fighting dirty, throwing himself off rooftops and running for his life. He makes the ideal contrast to the cool, dignified and brave “Good” character (Jung Woo-sung), whom he teams up with to hunt down and kill the clinically malicious “Bad” outlaw (Lee Byung-hun). Though he’s essentially a clown, and the comic relief of the film, the final scene (a perfectly-pitched homage to the end of Leone’s film) turns everything on its head. A shocking twist (which I won’t ruin here) sheds a whole new light on Song’s character, and shatters his image as a simple fool.
Song Kang-ho has many great performances under his belt, and has worked with the cream of Korean filmmaking talent. His star is rapidly on the rise, and hopefully he will excel in the West as much as he has in the East, starring (along with Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and John Hurt) in Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut, the sci-fi graphic novel adaptation SNOWPIERCER whenever it’s released on these shores. If he brings even a fraction of the talent he has demonstrated in his native South Korea to English-speaking roles, then he is sure to wow audiences worldwide. SSP