The magnetic actor, described by former co-star Tilda Swinton as "one of the protean greats of world cinema," has starred in everything from action-filled blockbusters to art house classics. Now he and frequent collaborator Bong Joon-ho have struck gold again with a Palme d'Or winner.
When the great South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho sat down to write Parasite, the searing black comedy that would later win him the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, he had not yet spoken of the project with his regular leading man, Song Kang-ho. But in a crucial sense for Bong, their long-running collaboration was again already underway.
The director had spent most of the previous decade making a half-pivot toward Hollywood, resulting in the English-language sci-fi features Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017). Now he planned to shoot his first fully Korean film in years, and he wanted to sharpen the social critique that had always lurked at the heart of his effortlessly entertaining, genre-bending filmmaking.
Bong says simply deciding that Song Kang-ho would co-star in the film is what allowed him to embolden his approach. "There was a relief that came from the certain expectation that if this actor plays this role, even the controversial parts will definitely be convincing to the audience," Bong told me not long after his Cannes triumph. "The script of Parasite, especially, has bold, unexpected, or somewhat controversial moments in its latter part," he explained, "but having Song Kang-ho in mind resolved the fears and concerns that I had writing them."
Parasite, which opens in North America on Oct. 11 and is expected to be a major awards season contender, is Bong and Song’s fourth collaboration — following Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006) and Snowpiercer (2013) — and it already appears to be at least their third project that will come to be regarded as a masterwork of recent world cinema (Quentin Tarantino, for example, has said he counts both Memories of Murder and The Host among the 10 finest films of the last 25 years).
The confidence Song has in his partnership with Bong is similarly absolute. "When director Bong tells me he has a part for me, I tend to agree to it before I even look at the script," Song told me on a recent afternoon in August, when we met for coffee in a quiet wing of a private members club in Hannam-dong, the stylish but subdued district in central Seoul. Song had entered the room as all movie stars do — exactly as you already imagine them. In his case: the striking cheekbones, the irresistible grin and the slightly hunched but bouncy posture that lends him a youthful bearing belying his 52 years. As one of South Korea’s very biggest stars for nearly two decades, Song said it’s common for him to feel as if the entire weight of a film rests on his shoulders. But when a Bong Joon-ho project comes to him, he’s at ease, knowing that he will be working "within a virtuoso’s very strong aura."
"We each made our start around the same time," Song said. “And as actor and director, we’ve traveled a very long, interesting, turbulent journey together — I think of our relationship as that of close friends and comrades.”
For lovers of cinema, the creative symbiosis the two artists have found in one another is not dissimilar, at this stage, to some of the other great actor-director collaborations of film history: Scorsese-De Niro (or Scorsese-DiCaprio), Kurosawa-Mifune, Herzog-Kinski, or even John Ford-John Wayne. But if Scorsese discovered in DiCaprio "the natural screen actor," and Kurosawa found in Mifune the ideal vehicle of his muscular humanism (and perhaps Herzog pursued Kinski as the antic embodiment of his "ecstatic truth"), what has Song given Bong, as his avatar?
In their first breakout film together, Memories of Murder — a mystery thriller loosely based on the true, unsolved case of South Korea’s first serial killer — Song starred as a hapless rural detective who somehow remains irresistibly likable despite his obvious incompetence and corruption.
"There have been a lot of examples in Song’s films where he plays someone, often from a provincial region, who at first glance appears unsophisticated and not at all urbane or thoughtful,” explains Darcy Paquet, a Korean film scholar and festival programmer based in Seoul. "But as the film goes on, he starts to change, and reveals himself to have much more depth. Memories of Murder played a major part in establishing this side of Song Kang-ho’s persona as Korea’s everyman."
Song’s relatability and versatility, in turn, Paquet says, have proved indispensable to Bong’s own signature preoccupations as a filmmaker: the effortless blending of classic Hollywood genres, shot through with black comedy and lingering pathos. When I reached out to Tilda Swinton to ask whether she might be interested in sharing a few thoughts on Song as a fellow actor, given that they had co-starred together in Bong’s Snowpiercer, she wrote back in the affirmative within just a few hours, later describing Memories of Murder as a "high point in my own filmgoing life." (Years ago, Swinton shared a dinner with Bong after a chance meeting in Cannes, which led to a lasting friendship, as well as her supporting roles in both Snowpiercer and Okja).
Of Song, Swinton is as effusive as she is unsurprisingly insightful: "He has a kind of sardonic capacity to offer up what he is doing with a wry, anarchistic delight; and at the same time, he has this lyricism that makes us want to be on his side, however dastardly or crackers his portrayal might be." (She also praised detailed aspects of his various performances, which she seemed to recall from memory. In Memories of Murder, for example: "A combination of inspired mess and precision” and that "running ninja kick moment off the side of a road, down a ditch and into the chest of an antagonist" which "manages to be both startlingly violent, awesomely athletic and somehow super droll all in one." Or, of Song’s performance as the "devoted, bumbling, bereaved single father" in Bong’s sci-fi monster masterpiece The Host: "Both burlesque in all the best ways and, finally, simply heartbreaking.")
“One of the protean greats in cinema... He’s a master, end of,” Swinton concluded.
Song’s hybrid talent also has proved integral to Bong’s second great signature as a filmmaker: those scenes of inspired chaos that arrive at key rising points in a film’s plot. In Memories of Murder, for example, it comes when the first victim’s body is discovered beside a field, and Song, playing the detective in charge, stumbles around the frame barking orders to incompetent cops and onlookers who swarm through the crime scene, clearly corrupting the evidence. In The Host, it happens when the film’s monster — a metaphor made movie icon — clamors ashore from the Han River, wreaking havoc and stealing away with Song’s character’s daughter.
Bong told me that the irony involved in crafting such sequences is what makes them his favorite to film: "To create that mayhem, it needs to be very controlled; you need to prepare chaos with great precision."
"When you look at these scenes," he elaborated, "you can feel how much Song Kang-ho’s explosive energy contributes to a long-take shot. He plays the role of filling the empty spots in between the chaos. What makes him so special is his impressive animal instinct and a broad vision that interprets the whole film — these two always function simultaneously in him."
Bong and Song also share an aversion to rehearsal and a love of improvisation: "We’re the type to just go with it and begin rolling the cameras right away," Bong says.
"He blurs the line between what’s improvised and what’s not, that’s the most amazing part," Bong further explained. "He makes the elaborate lines I wrote sound improvised and alive, as if every moment is a documentary. He then turns it around and makes his improvised words sound like the pre-written lines by the director — they fit in with the flow of the whole drama."
In general in Korea, great acting is often associated with the voice and elocution. Song is considered such a master of this aspect of screen acting that the relish and exactitude with which he says his lines is something that can often be felt even by non-Korean speakers watching his work with subtitles.
"He can give the impression of being a character that's out of control and a bit all over the place, but his delivery — what he does with his voice — it's always so precise," Paquet explains. "It's part of what gives his characters such a big impact."
When I asked Song in Seoul of his acting influences, he mentioned only Steve McQueen. "I used to love him so much," he said, lighting up. "He seemed to be colorless and odorless as an actor, but at the same time, I could feel that underlying, very profound loneliness. The minimalist acting style. And despite not being the most handsome of actors, he was still so alluring."
The star of more than 30 South Korean films, Song has served as the muse to other world-acclaimed directors besides just Bong — indeed, to survey his career is to marvel at the remarkable depth and richness of recent Korean filmmaking. He demonstrated his commercial comedy and action star chops in three hits from Kim Jee-woon (The Foul King; The Good, the Bad, and The Weird; and The Age of Shadows). For the great Park Chan-wook, he played parts as diverse as a North Korean soldier (Joint Security Area), a vengeful factory boss (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) and a vampire priest (Thirst). Cult director Lee Chang-dong, meanwhile, put Song’s quicksilver charm to devilishly deliberate use in his scorching existential masterpiece, Secret Sunshine.
"I've had some proposals from big Hollywood productions, but I have said no to all of them," Song told me in Seoul. "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."
Following several well received supporting and comedic performances, Song's first major breakthrough as a dramatic talent came in Joint Security Area, which also became Park Chan-wook’s first blockbuster hit. A mystery thriller, the film explores a tragic incident that occurs between two pairs of soldiers — one from North Korea, the other from the South — who improbably become friends across the DMZ during the long, quiet hours of their mutual night watch. Song played the North Korean soldier who emerges as the film’s closest character to a hero. Both the part and the performance were groundbreaking: It was the first time in South Korean film history that a character from the North was portrayed in a dynamic and sympathetic manner. "North Koreans were always described as demons, monsters or severely malnourished people; the authoritarian anti-communist government of the past imposed it," Park recalls. "I felt it was important to describe North Koreans as normal people, not as angels or demons."
To prepare for the role, Song spent hours with North Korean defectors, mastering the nuances of the Northern accent. Although Park has always drawn on the delicacy and precision in Song’s skill set more than his freewheeling potential, the actor’s ever-present everyman appeal helped bridge the divide that had existed in Korea’s cinema as much as in the political realities of the peninsula.
"Under the circumstances where South Korean society had 'otherized' North Korea, the sense of folksiness and familiarity that people drew from Song was the most crucial virtue," Park explains. The "exquisite sense of humor" Song brought to the North Korean character also ensured that the film "avoid[ed] feeling too sentimentally nationalistic, or overly didactic," he says.
Joint Security Area was the biggest commercial success of the year when it was released, and Song’s reputation as an "actor’s actor" within South Korea’s often surface- and celebrity-obsessed pop culture landscape was henceforth established (In a DiCaprio-esque manner, Song has eschewed television and commercials work, concentrating his mystique exclusively on the big screen).
"Looking back," says Song, "I think precisely from the year 2000 to 2003, when I did JSA, The Foul King, Memories of Murder, these were the films when I really started enjoying and discovering my potential — when I really felt that great joy and catharsis."
Song acknowledges the "great advantage" his everyman image gives him in connecting with viewers across performances, but he also seems ever so slightly burdened by it at this stage in his career.
"Why? Because this image I have for people, it was built over so many years," he explained. "I face the challenge of many artists, or individuals, approaching later life: How can I continue to change as an actor or a man? This is something I think about a lot."
If there is a surprise to Song’s latest collaboration with Bong Joon-ho in Parasite, it’s that the actor doesn’t exactly star in the film — and that he leans on his instant likability far less than usual.
A sly, tightly controlled parable about the social alienation that is intrinsic to income inequality, Parasite tells the story of two mirroring families — one rich, one destitute. After the son of the poor family begins working as a tutor for the daughter of the wealthy one, the two units become increasingly intertwined — in ways that are bizarre, hilarious and ultimately tragic. Song, who plays the defeated patriarch of the lower-class family, gives one of his most restrained and focused performances to date. "I have been describing my character as a kind of invertebrate," he told me in Seoul. "I see this guy as representing the middle-aged Korean man whose life just hasn’t worked out the way he wanted, but he still has to somehow adapt and find a way to live."
Bong observes: "Indeed, the acting format [in Parasite] is that of an ensemble, where almost 10 main characters work with each other in even balance. Despite this, as can be seen when we look back on the film’s climax sequence, it’s Song Kang-ho who’s bearing the core sentiment of the film as well as its riskiest moments, the most daring parts," he said.
When Parasite won the Palme D’or at Cannes in May — in what jury president Alejandro González Iñárritun described as a unanimous decision — Bong, unfailingly affable and self-effacing in his public appearances, noted that 2019 marks the 100-year anniversary of the first Korean film. "I think Cannes has given Korea cinema a great gift," he commented from the stage.
But in his moment of triumph, the director also reserved a brief moment for his friend and creative comrade of so many years. As he was handed the Palme d’Or, Bong immediately turned toward Song and kneeled down and presented his star with the glinting trophy.
When I asked Bong what he meant to communicate with the gesture, he said: "It came from the feeling that I wanted to give him the trophy for best actor. It sort of meant, 'You’re my best actor, and you’re the best actor of Cannes.'" And with a very Bong Joon-ho chuckle, he added: "But I haven’t actually said any of this to Song Kang-ho himself."
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Sept. 8 daily issue at the Toronto Film Festival.