From working with the who’s who of the Korean movie industry to making headlines globally – Song Kang-ho has been there, done that. One of the most recognisable faces in entertainment, his versatility has paved the way for the most diverse filmography. If you’ve yet to be acquainted with his acting prowess, here’s a look at a few must-watch titles.
In the business of entertainment since the late 1980s, Song Kang-ho has had quite the exciting career trajectory. Theatre set the ball rolling for him while standout performances as a background actor, often as a gangster, caught the attention of directors. One in particular – named Kim Jee-woon – cast him in the comedy-horror The Quiet Family (1998). What followed is a series of versatile roles – Catholic priest, detective, taxi driver, king. Each built his reputation as a stellar artist and won him numerous awards – both in South Korea and internationally. We’re talking Cannes and The Academy Awards – where his titles won big.
In an interview with Yonhap News Agency, he chalks his success up to not being handsome. “Filmmaking is part of presenting and looking into our lives, neighbours and ourselves. I think those famous directors may want to tell their stories through an ordinary-looking man.” He further added that his zeal to be better never dies. “I always think I needed more or I should have done better.” This has led to consistent work from the household name – the most current being a remake of the wildly popular Malayalam crime-thriller Drishyam for a Korean audience. If you’re yet to be acquainted with his body of work, here are a few movies on our watchlist.
Popular Song Kang-ho movies for your next binge session
Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Jang Hye-jin
Release date: 21 May 2019
Synopsis: Poverty-stricken Kims, including Kim Ki-taek (played by Song Kang-ho) live in a basement in Seoul. The son – Ki-woo (played by Choi Woo-shik) lands a well-paid tutoring gig – the interview for which is at the sprawling home of the wealthy Park family. What follows is a parasitic relationship between the two families, with the Kims working with the Parks to make ends meet.
Hailed by critics for its intelligent storytelling, the movie won scores of accolades. This includes an Oscar for Best Picture – earning the actor the title of ‘award fairy.’ Referring to the success, he noted in an interview with Yonhap, “I was confident with the quality of Parasite.”
Directed by: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Gang Dong-won, Bae Doona, Lee Ji-eun, Lee Joo-young
Release date: 26 May 2022
Synopsis: Ha Sang-hyeon (played by Song Kang-ho) owns a hand laundry business but is in debt. His friend Dong-soo (played by Gang Dong-won) was raised in an orphanage and works in a baby box facility. The two run an illegal business – stealing children from the church and selling them in the black market for adoption. Things go awry when a mother So-young (played by Lee Ji-Eun) changes her mind after abandoning her infant, returning for him. She later joins the duo, looking for a potential pair of parents for him. However, two detectives have their eyes on them.
Song’s stellar performance won him the Best Actor Award at the Cannes International Film Festival. Reflecting on it, he noted in an interview with Korea Times that he wanted his character to be mysterious. “I wasn’t curious about Sang-hyun’s background and didn’t want to know it. I wanted to approach the character as if he was a mystery,” he said before adding, “I didn’t want to try figuring out his exact emotions (throughout the storyline) and portray them, no matter what his past was or his future would be.”
A Taxi Driver
Directed by: Jang Hoon
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Thomas Kretschmann, Yoo Hae-jin, Ryu Jun-yeol, Park Hyuk-kwon, Choi Gwi-hwa
Release date: 2 August 2017
Synopsis: Against the backdrop of the Gwangju Uprising in 1980 Kim Man-Seob (played by Song Kang-ho) is a taxi driver in debt. He overhears another driver talk about receiving 100,000 won to take a foreign client to Gwangju. Unaware of the pro-democracy movement, he takes it up – transporting German reporter Jürgen ‘Peter’ Hinzpeter (played by Thomas Kretschmann) to his destination. The two men navigate the challenges and dangers of a siege, encountering student protestors and the military along the way.
Commending Song on his performance, director Hoon noted in an interview with Korea Times that nobody else could do justice to the role. “Song’s acting surpasses typical universality entertaining the audience in a new and enjoyable way,” he added. With its success, Song was deemed the first Korean to appear in three films that brought in over 10 million moviegoers.
Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Byun Hee-bong, Park Hae-il, Bae Doona, Go Ah-sung, Oh Dal-su
Release date: 27 July 2006
Synopsis: A ferocious sea monster takes over Seoul. However, it chooses its victims carefully. On its radar? The young Hyun-seo (played by Go Ah-sung). When she’s abducted, her father Gang-du (played by Song Kang-ho) – an ordinary food-stand worker – works to break into the creature’s hideout to rescue her.
Song made his way to the Cannes Film Festival for the first time with this movie – winning the Best Actor title while at it. Commending his acting prowess, director Bong noted as per Korea JoongAng Daily, “He has the ability to bring life and rawness to every moment. Even if a scene involves difficult dialogue or highly technical camerawork, he will find a way to make it seamless and spontaneous. Each take will be different, and the unwieldiest dialogue will seem like improvisation.” He further added, “Song projects the quality of the typical Korean working man, a neighbour or friend you might encounter in your neighbourhood. He starts from the ordinary and elevates it into a singular and inimitable voice. I believe that’s what makes Song Kang-ho and the characters he inhabits genuinely special.”
Directed by: Yang Woo-suk
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Kim Young-ae, Oh Dal-su, Kwak Do-won, Im Si-wan
Release date: 18 December 2013
Synopsis: In the 1980s, Song Woo-seok (played by Song Kang-ho) is an unusual lawyer. Despite no connections or college degree, he works his way to being one of the most successful in the business. In part, this is by taking up cases his colleagues refuse. Things take a turn when he takes up the case of a local teenager who’s falsely accused of a crime and mistreated in jail. This is based on a true story.
The film gained wide critical and commercial acclaim, selling over 10 million tickets. However, it was expected to be an independent film. “When Song Kang-ho agreed to join us, it was reframed as a popular film as opposed to an independent film and things started to proceed quite smoothly,” – the director Yang noted in an interview with Hankyoreh.
Which of these are you adding to your watchlist?
All images: Courtesy IMDb