With a 17-year-long acting career this year (i.e., 2014), Song Kang-ho is undoubtedly a leading South Korean actor. As of October 2014, Song Kang-ho has completed his work in Sado, an upcoming 2015 South Korean period drama film directed by Lee Joon-ik. The film is his second South Korean historical drama film since The Face Reader (2013). In Sado, Song Kang-ho stars as King Yeongjo, surely a class dramatically upward from his debut roles such as the gangster in Green Fish (1997) and the homeless man in Bad Movie (1997).
Song Kang-ho was born in Gimhae, Gyeongsannam-do, in 1967. He completed his education all the way upto high school there. Upon graduating from high school, Song Kang-ho pursued further education in acting.
He applied to several colleges, but none accepted him. When asked “Which actor do you admire the most?” by a professor of the admissions committee at a performing arts college department, Song Kang-ho answered: “Alas… Hung Kam-bo?” (Hung Kam-bo is a Hong Kong martial arts film actor famously known for his comedic, campy roles and was not regarded as respectable by Koreans at that time.) A rumor says that his answer yielded the rejection from the school. Eventually, he got admitted to and attended Busan Kyungsan College. However, he dropped out of the college after only one year of study.
As it is well known, Song Kang-ho began his acting career in social theater groups. He made his stage premiere in 1991 with The Little Monk, a play by Theater Yeonwoo.
His debut feature film is The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996) directed by Hong Sang-soo. (The film is also the directorial debut of Hong Sang-soo.) Song Kang-ho played protagonist Hyo-sup’s (played by Kim Eui-sung) friend, a minor role that did not grant him much attention from the public. Meanwhile, for this film, Hong Sang-soo earned the Blue Dragon Film Award for Best Directing and has become one of leading South Korean directors. Incidentally, the two, Hong Sang-soo and Song Kang-ho, have not yet worked together again.
In Jang Sun-woo’s film Bad Movie (1997), Song Kang-ho played a homeless person--the character so negligible that no one at that time regarded Song as a professional actor for living--and appeared very briefly. Some scenes in Bad Movie were filmed in a documentary format. In those scenes, his role was appearing out of nowhere and clapping and singing to a song. Although his appearance was brief in the film, his portrayal of the character was very convincing.
Song Kang-ho’s performance of Pan-su, a gangster character, in director Lee Chang-dong’s Green Fish (1997) was so convincing, enough for a rumor to circulate at that time that Song was an actual gangster in real life. His performance was the very definition of gangster. In the film, Pan-su appears wearing a tacky, shiny blue shirt and white pants and picks a fight with Makdong (played by Han Suk-kyu).
Song Kang-ho gained critical acclaim and fame for his show-stealing performance in director Song Neung-han’s No. 3, as gangster boss Jo-pil. His lengthy, stammering, rambling lines in the film became an instant hit: “I say the sky is red, then it is red; I say it is Hyun Jung-hwa, then it is Hyun Jung-hwa. Any bastard who speaks word a... a... against mine is a be… be,,, betrayer.” Song Kang-ho also became popular for these particular lines. People began to see him as an actor good at comedic and ad-lib performances. (In reality, Song has a range of performance styles and tones, among which the comedic one he happened to show in No. 3.)
Song Kang-ho played the character Kang Young-min, the youngest son in Kim Jee-woon’s directorial debut film The Quiet Family (1998). With other prominent actors also starring in the film, such as Park In-hwan and Cho Min-sik, Song Kang-ho did not necessarily stand out. (Casting was more about the ensemble than featuring particular actors.) Nonetheless, Song did an excellent job at performing his character of feigned innocence.
Afterward, Song Kang-ho appeared in Choi Jin-ho’s short film School Reunion (1999) and Kang Je-gyu’s blockbuster film Swiri (1999). In the latter film, Song played a supporting character, Yu Jong-won’s (Han Suk-kyu’s) secret agent partner Lee Jang-gil, distant from his earlier gangster character in No. 3. (1997) that had made him popular to the public. Those who had expected the Jong-pil character of No 3 in Swiri found the Jang-gil character to be an awkward fit for Song Kang-ho.
It is sad that Song Kang-ho appears only in high-profile directors’ movies, but in fact, he has appeared in numerous directorial debut films, including ones by directors Hong Sang-soo, Song Neung-han, Kim Jee-woon, Kim Hyeon-seok, Im Chang-sang, Yim Pil-song, and Yang Woo-seok.
The Foul King
Song Kang-ho’s unique high pitched laughs, fast talks, and petit bourgeois appearances had kept him in the character roles that were simply untidy and comic. Then, the turning point of Song Kang-ho’s acting career came in 1999 through his role Im Dae-ho in Kim Jee-woon’s The Foul King.
Im Dae-ho (played by Song Kang-ho), a comical but more full-rounded and complex character, in The Foul King is in a dead-end job as a bank teller. At his daytime job, he is both verbally and physically bullied by his boss and feels that he has little worthwhile in his life. Then, he stumbles across a local gym where they hold minor professional wrestling leagues, and he joins. At night, he trains as a wrestler and finds that it empowers him and gives him the confidence to stand up against the people who bully him and, with his wrestling mask on, to even confess his love to a girl.
Joint Security Area
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
In the early 2000’s, Song Kang-ho starred in two of director Park Chan-wook’s films, as humanist North Korean sergeant Oh Kyung-pil in Joint Security Area (2000) and Park Dong-jin, the president of a mid-sized manufacturing company, whose daughter has been kidnapped and murdered and who now seeks revenge on the killer in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002). The two films are only two years apart from each other; the tones of the films are completely different; Song Kang-ho’s characters in the films are at two opposite ends of the spectrum, one being warm-hearted Sgt. Oh who says, “By the way, why did [Kim] Kwang-seok die at such a young age?” and eats Choco Pie--a South Korean snack cake popular among Korean soldiers--and the other being cold-hearted Park Dong-jin who even carries out parrilla on the killer. (Kim Kwang-seok is a South Korean folk rock singer. In the film, Sgt. Oh, South Korean sergeant Lee Soo-hyeok [played by Lee Byung-hun], and other characters listen together to Kim’s music at a post in DMZ.) Song Kang-ho performed these two characters in an outstanding way.
Director Park Chan-wook once said, “Amongst all Korean actors that I know, [Song Kang-ho frequents the editing room the most and] he has the most directorial perspective.”
YMCA Baseball Team (2002) featured Song Kang-ho as Lee Ho-chang, the twentysomething son of a yangban scholar in Korea under the Japanese Rule (1910-1945), who likes to play baseball and is a cleanup hitter. (When cast, Song Kang-ho was 35, a bit older for the role and it was challenging. Yet, he did an admirable job with his unique aura of pleasure.) And in Kim Jee-woon’s short film The Power of Love (2003) that co-stars Moon So-ri, Song Kang-ho played a blind man.
Memories of Murder
For Memories of Murder, based on the true story of the Hwaseong serial murders (Korea’s first known serial murders that took place between September 15, 1986 and April 3, 1991), Song Kang-ho teamed up with director Bong Joon-ho. (This was the first time that they worked together. In later years, Song and Bong produced more films together.) In the film, Song played the rural detective Park Doo-man who chases after the killer. In the film, Park Doo-man sometimes tries to cursorily wrap up the investigation of the criminal case, other times precisely spots the masked suspect “Red Underwear” amongst many construction workers, and also says “You don’t skip meals? [In Korean, it means ‘Are you well?’]“ and releases a suspect upon the inconclusive DNA evidence. Song Kang-ho played admirably this wide range of Park Doo-man’s emotions and actions and created scenes still favorably remembered by many in Korean film history. Especially, the ending scene where he gazes at the audiences through the screen is iconic.
For his performance in Memories of Murder, Song Kang-ho won the best leading actor awards from the 40th Grand Bell Awards and four other film awards ceremonies.
Song Kang-ho is Seong Han-mo in director Im Chan-sang’s The President’s Barber (2004). Seong Han-mo, a personal barber for dictatorial president Park Chung-hee, is a father who adores his son. Song Kang-ho’s such paternal role continues through the following films such as The Host (2006) and The Show Must Go On (2006).
In director Yim Pil-sung’s Antarctic Journal (2004), Song Kang-ho starred as Choi Do-hyung, the captain of an expedition team. Distancing himself from his earlier comedic roles, Song Kang-ho undertook Choi Do-hyun’s character who is rather serious and even villainous; however, unfortunately Song did not receive much attention for his performance in the film. Later, he dubbed the lion Alex for the Korean version of DreamWorks’ Madagascar (2005) and made a cameo appearance as an assassin in Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005). His filmography of critically acclaimed movies that seemed ever-lasting came to an halt.
With no commercial hit film since Memories of Murder in 2003, Song Kang-ho went through some professional struggles. In 2005, film director Kang Woo-suk stated in the media that excessive compensation given to actors were only damaging the Korean film industry and inadvertently he mentioned Song Kang-ho’s and another Choi Min-sik’s names. Even though later Kang issued an apology letter to Song and Choi, the two actors’ reputations as public figures had been already stained by his remarks.
Meanwhile, in 2006, Song Kang-ho, along with other actors and filmmakers, stood at the forefront of the protest against the government’s decision to reduce the screen quotas from 143 to 73 days.
With Song Kang-ho’s career declining, some people started writing him off. They even said that “The Troika” of Song Kang-ho, Han Suk-kyu, and Choi Min-sik had come to an end and that a new one should emerge. Then, Song Kang-ho returned to his prominence in summer 2006 with the film The Host.
In 2006, Song Kang-ho teamed up with director Bong Joon-ho again for The Host and played Park Gang-du. The paternal character Park Gang-du seems an extension of Song Kang-ho’s another character Seong Han-mo in The President’s Barber (2004). In The Host, slow-witted Park Kang-du desperately searches for his lost daughter. Particularly, Park Kang-du’s one-minute-long lines “No virus? It is all a hoax… Hyun-seo [Park Gang-du’s daughter who has been captured by the creature], I am so sorry…” are iconic, with a range of emotions such as comedy, sorrow, anger, and breakdown all amalgamated in them.
The Show Must Go On
Director Han Jae-rim’s 2006 film The Show Must Go On featured Song Kang-ho as a well-suited mid-level gangster boss who becomes a “goose father.” Meanwhile, the character In-gu is a typical Korean father who is a company man and struggles at work, who dreams of moving his family out of their shabby apartment and into a bigger home, who gets nagged by his wife, and whose children do not care for him enough.
One of the film’s iconic scenes comes near the end when its protagonist In-gu (Song Kang-ho) eats ramen alone in a spacious living room, while watching a video of his family, who now lives overseas, on TV. The juxtaposition of the other happy family members and In-gu who has nothing but a broken ramen bowl to cry in creates a sense of lament and is Song-Kang-ho-esque.
In Secret Sunshine, Song Kang-ho, for the first time in a long time, played a supporting character. Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho) is a warm-hearted character and he is just that; he follows the tragic widow Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) around like a shadow and gives her comfort. His character that guides her but does not overshadow her is by far the best and creates a sense of hope in the film.
Afterward, Song Kang-ho teamed up again with megastar directors. He starred as Yoon Tae-goo, the Weird, in Kim Jee-woon’s The Good, The Bad, the Weird (2008) and priest Sang-hyun in Park Chan-wook’s Thirst (2009), In both films, Song Kang-ho’s characters are weighty; in particular, his acting of the priest character in Thirst who becomes a vampire is quite uniquely attractive. Arguably, the Sang-hyun character amongst all the roles that Song Kang-ho has played in his actor career has the most sex appeal.
In 2010, Song Kang-ho played a secret government agent in the film Secret Reunion. With the film, he returned to his signature character of the everyday middle-aged man (e.g., father figures in The President’s Barber , The Host , and The Show Must Go On ). Perhaps, for him, such character is his destiny.
Between 2010 and 2012, Song Kang-ho had his second career downtime. The 2011 film Hindsight was the least commercially successful feature film that Song Kang-ho had ever appeared in; the 2011 film Howling (also starring Lee Na-young) did not gross much, either, as expected.
In the latter film, Song Kang-ho played another supporting role (since Secret Sunshine). He even said himself, “I am now comfortable playing supporting characters.” In 2012, he appeared in his third short film Day Trip (co-directed by Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong).
The Face Reader
In 2013, Song Kang-ho returned to his prominence with a serial release of his new commercial hit films Snowpiercer (July 2013), The Face Reader (September 2013), and The Attorney (December 2013); the three films altogether attracted more than 30,000,000 audiences and earned him the title “30-million guy.”
In Snowpiercer, Song starred as Namgoong Minsu, the specialist who designed the security features on the train. His playing of the character demanded great physical and combat strength and he did an admirable job bringing the character to life. Among the international high-profile cast such as Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho still shined in the film. And in the following film The Face Reader, Song Kang-ho’s first historical film drama, he played Nae-gyeong, the most skillful face reader in the Joseon Dynasty. And in The Attorney, loosely based upon the true story of the late President Roh Moo-hyun, and the “Burim case” of 1981, Song Kang-ho played the lawyer Song Woo-suk. His character begins as a comical one, then later in the film shifts into a more serious one. In particular, his performances in the long takes where he argues at the court that E.H. Carr’s What Is History? is not a seditious literature and where he shouts: “The people are the state!” are outstanding.
As of now (February 2015), this has been Song Kang-ho’s journey as an actor. The word “Song-Kang-ho-esque” still stands. He has played a wide range of characters and done so astonishingly. Whatever characters being given to him, Song Kang-ho is always true to himself; yet, he manifests those characters as they are at their best. That is, Song Kang-ho. He possesses such seemingly contradictory qualities, and that is one of his greatest strengths as an actor. The phrase “outstanding interpreter” does justice to his name.
He is not extraordinarily good-looking for an actor, but rather plain-looking. Yet, many of his films (e.g., Memories of Murder, The Show Must Go On, and The Attorney) end with close-up shots of his face; Song Kang-ho’s face can entail profound messages to audiences.
Film journalist Beck Una writes in her book 24 Hours in Actors’ Faces: “I have never seen a face as difficult as his [Song Kang-ho’s] to grasp.” Perhaps, this is the most accurate description of Song Kang-ho. The mature he gets, the more difficult it gets for us, audiences, to put his face in certain categories and the more mysterious it gets for us to predict how far he, as an actor, could evolve and what kind of tales his face would entail. We could only know as we patiently wait and closely watch him embark on a venture into new cinematic terrains.
The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (Hong Sang-soo 1996)
Bad Movie (Jang Sun-woo, 1997)
Green Fish (Lee Chang-dong, 1997)
No. 3 (Song Neung-han, 1997)
The Quiet Family (Kim Jee-woon, 1998)
School Reunion (Choi Jin-ho, 1999)
Swiri (Kang Je-gyu, 1999)
The Foul King (Kim Jee-woon, 2000)
Joint Security Area (Park Chan-wook, 2000)
Mr. Vengeanc (Park Chan-wook, 2002)
YMCA Baseball Team (Kim Hyun-seok, 2002)
The Power of Love (Kim Jee-woon, 2003)
Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003)
The President’s Barber (Im Chan-sang, 2004)
Antarctic Journal (Yim Pil-sung, 2004)
Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2005)
Madagascar (Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, 2005)
The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)
The Show Must Go On (Han Jae-rim, 2006)
Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, 2007)
A Little Pond (Yi Sang-woo, 2007)
The Good, The Bad, the Weird (Kim Jee-woon, 2008)
Thirst (Park Chan-wook, 2009)
Secret Reunion (Jang Hun, 2009)
Howling (Yoo Ha, 2011)
Hindsight (Lee Hyun-seung, 2011)
Day Trip (Park Chan-wook, Park Chan-kyong, 2012)
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, 2013)
The Face Reader (Han Jae-rim, 2013)
The Attorney (Yang Woo-seok, 2013)
Sado (Lee Joon-ik, 2015)
Curator — Yoo Sungkwan, Korean Film Archive
Publisher — Yoo Sungkwan, Korean Film Archive
English translation — Lee Han Nool
Special thanks to — Lee In