When I asked Song Kang-ho why he’s always seemed drawn towards playing working-class survivors instead of more traditional hero types, the 52-year-old “Parasite” star flashed his famous smile: “There are many handsome actors,” he said through a translator. “I am not one of them.”
It was the sort of funny and self-deprecating response you might expect from someone who — despite his roles in several of the best and often highest-grossing Korean films of the 21st century, and his shattering recent performance in the country’s first-ever Palme d’Or winner — is still a little flummoxed that Western audiences are familiar with his work. It was also flat-out wrong.
With his anchor-shaped jaw and scavenger’s grin set below two wide cheeks that float on either side of his nose like a pair of full moons, Song was probably never going to pass for a K-pop star. But his face has the wide open beauty of a silent film actor; it’s a screen unto itself, and it waxes and wanes from one feeling to another so legibly that you can see how the light side casts a shadow on the dark. The most raw and electrifying moments in a Song Kang-ho performance tend to be found in the transitional states between emotions, or in the liminal spaces where they’re layered on top of each other — when happiness melts into horror, or duty is salted with revenge — which helps to explain why the world’s most elastic filmmaker can hardly make a movie without him.
“Parasite” is Song’s fourth genre-bending collaboration with Bong Joon Ho, but none of their extraordinary previous efforts (“Memories of Murder,” “The Host,” and “Snowpiercer”) have been quite so dependent on the actor’s capacity to occupy several different spaces at once, nor so informed by his character’s unstable self-conflict. Song plays Kim Ki-taek, the patriarch of a poor Seoul family whose fortunes start to change when, one by one, they each scheme their way into being employed by the nouveau riche family who lives up the hill. The violent tragicomedy that erupts from there boasts as deep an ensemble as any (and every) movie Bong has ever made, but Song is the story’s broken heart.
Sitting for an interview during a rare trip to New York, the actor explained that he’s “always been drawn to characters with familiar faces — the kind of men who wrestle with life in a way that only seems ordinary from the outside.” Needless to say, Bong wrote Ki-taek with his favorite leading man in mind, and Song plays the role to perfection in a giddy turn that see-saws between dignity and desperation.
Ki-taek, a former driver who just wants to lift his family above the underground apartment where they’re fumigated like cockroaches, represents the hollowed but still-human bottom rung of a class hierarchy that stretches up from the sewers. That galling verticality is only disrupted through work and the transactional relationships that it makes possible, though “Parasite” shrewdly traces how lines are still drawn between people even when they’re in the same house. The genius of Song’s performance is rooted in how it collapses those spaces together, forcing high and low as close to each other as happiness and pain, love and bloodshed, survival and revenge. Through Song, Ki-taek becomes a microcosm of Bong’s movies, as the chaos of breaking down borders (between feelings, classes, and genres) is so raw and well-realized that it ultimately clarifies how little was separating them in the first place.
“I’ve actually never talked with Bong about how he uses me!” Song said, but the actor — who enjoys similarly rich and enduring partnerships with several other titans of modern Korean cinema — acknowledged that his favorite directors “each think of me as a different tool. Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, and Kim Jee-woon all have their various sets of characters for me to play, and I find it really interesting to switch between them,” he said, alluding to how Bong tends to cast him as low-status clowns, while Park has reliably pushed him towards more severe parts in films like “Thirst” (in which he played — wait for it — a horny vampire priest).
Anyone who’s seen 2002’s “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” knows that Park Dong-jin is the most severe of them all. A manufacturing company President who spirals down an unfathomably dark path, Dong-jin gets pulled into one of filmdom’s most excruciating revenge stories after his young daughter is kidnapped by a deaf-mute factory worker and his radical anarchist girlfriend. The film is so grim that it flirts with self-parody from almost the moment it starts, and Song is only able to sell us on the sadism of it all because — even at its most extreme — his performance never loses sight of the character’s basic decency; Dong-jin’s depravity is never far removed from the other parts of himself that it forces him to leave behind.
Song is far too humble to acknowledge the instrumental role he’s played in the spectacular resurgence of South Korean cinema, but he’s still able to put his career in its proper context. “I was terrified of ‘Mr. Vengeance’ because I had never done anything quite like it,” he admitted. “There had never been anything quite like it in the history of Korean film. But it was that fear that made me decide to appear in the movie.”
Song didn’t know it at the time, but his performance as Dong-jin led him to be typecast as contemporary cinema’s best worst dad. It’s an archetype that he later made heartbreaking in “The Host,” polished off in “A Taxi Driver,” and now explodes in “Parasite.” But this may be the end of that. “I don’t always want to play dads!” Song said, and laughed. “At my age, I recognize that I represent the typical Korean father who’s part of the main labor force, so there’s a very warm feeling built in to those characters vis à vis their kids, but honestly I’d love to play… alone.”
But when “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” came out, Song was still adjusting to the possibility that he could play anything. By that point in his still-nascent film career, just six years after he first showed up as an extra in Hong Sang-soo’s “The Day a Pig Fell into the Well,” he was already famous. Celebrity had found him almost immediately, as his transition from stage to screen coincided with (or even helped) spark the Korean New Wave, and practically all of his initial credits (e.g. “No. 3” and the blockbuster “Shiri”) were big hits. But it was 2000’s “Joint Security Area,” the biggest hit of them all, that helped Song figure out he could bridge the gap between seemingly irreconcilable forces.
Song’s first collaboration with Park — and at that time the highest-grossing film in Korean history — “JSA” is a gripping mystery about a murder that happens within the DMZ, and the terse but touching alliance that subsequently forms between guards on either side of the border. When asked if the film’s success was overwhelming (perhaps so overwhelming that he and Park felt as if they needed to compensate with a hostile and ill-conceived follow-up), Song demurred: “‘JSA’ had a huge audience, but it marked an important transformation in Korean ideology. A lot of South Koreans look at North Koreans as a stereotype, but that film allowed us to see them as people. They are the same as we are.” It brought him to a new realization: “That’s the genius of Park Chan-wook: He was able to show us a solution. So it wasn’t a burden that the film was a huge box office hit. On the contrary, it left me with the desire to make more films with Director Park. Not all of them were successful financially, but it’s been a great honor to work with him.”
“JSA” wasn’t the only one of Song’s films to blur the line between fiction and reality. “Memories of Murder,” his first collaboration with Bong, brought the story of Korea’s most notorious serial killer to the world’s attention. Often favorably compared to David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (it features way more flying dropkicks), the movie has been haunting audiences for almost 20 years. Earlier this month, a man finally confessed to the crimes. “I’m glad that the culprit has been caught,” Song said, “and I feel very proud in a way. But I have to admit that it’s an ambiguous feeling.”
Ambiguity isn’t the most natural feeling for Song, an actor who’s more comfortable with synthesis than uncertainty. He’s more likely to find artistic freedom in tight spaces — and through precise direction — than he is in being left to his own devices. Perhaps that explains why he and Bong have always been such a natural fit. As “Parasite” makes clearer than ever, Bong plans every meticulous frame of his films so well that he makes Wes Anderson look like a kid messing around on TikTok, and yet Song is able to find a profound reservoir of raw life in even the most intricate shots. “A lot of people want to work with Director Bong,” Song said, “but many of them have… certain difficulties. The storyboard is incredibly specific, and the mise-en-scène gives you very little room. Bong wants an idiosyncratic performance, and some actors can have a lot of trouble with that. After 20 years, I’ve gotten used to it.”
As always, Song beamed when talking about his partnerships with such generational filmmakers, and how much he’s enjoyed watching them all grow as artists and people. Asked how Park has matured since “JSA,” or Bong since “Memories of Murder,” or “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” director Kim Jee-woon since “The Quiet Family,” Song only said that “they’ve each gained more liberty in the world they’ve created.” For him, Bong’s exactitude is a beautiful expression of the creative freedom that he’s earned for himself, and Song couldn’t be happier to help filter that energy onto film.
That’s ultimately how Song likes to see himself: As a sieve that’s able to transmute darkness into light. Of all the characters he’s ever played, the actor says that he relates best to the one he played in Lee Chang-dong’s 2007 masterpiece “Secret Sunshine,” a sweet-natured mechanic who tries to help a beautiful woman (Jeon Do-yeon) survive the unimaginable nightmare that befalls her after moving to his small country town. “That is one of my favorite films,” Song said, “and I actually really enjoyed making it. It’s a tragic story, but if you look at the meaning of the film, it’s not as grim as all that. The man I play is a very ordinary and materialistic person, but he’s also an innocent.”
To his mind, the mechanic is like a thick gray cloud separating a deep blue sky from the dreariness below: “I think the ‘secret sunshine’ of the title partially refers to the rays that poke through and transform all of the bad things about this man and the world around him into light.” If it weren’t for the clouds, you wouldn’t be able to see them at all.
“Parasite” is now in theaters.