It’s a shame Song Kang-ho isn’t better known to international audiences, because he has been quietly dominating South Korean cinema for the past couple decades and change. Though he never underwent any professional training as an actor, he clearly possessed the kind of singular talent required to move seamlessly between genres, and he found willing partners in some of the most gifted directors to come out of Korea. This led to fruitful partnerships with people like Lee Chang-dong (Green Fish, Secret Sunshine), Park Chan-wook (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Joint Security Area, Thirst), and Kim Jee-woon (The Foul King; The Good, the Bad, the Weird; Age of Shadows), but his work with one Bong Joon-ho may be his best known and most significant.
It was Bong’s 2007 creature feature The Host that propelled both him and Song into the international spotlight, and when they later reunited for Bong’s English-language debut, 2014’s Snowpiercer, the film was widely hailed as a brilliant, ambitious dystopian vision — this is nothing to say of their very first film together, 2003’s serial killer mystery Memories of Murder, which is a decidedly smaller film, but an equally compelling and masterfully told story. To be clear, all three of those movies are Certified Fresh at 90% on the Tomatometer or higher, but it’s their latest collaboration that has people talking about the Oscars.
In Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, Song Kang-ho plays the patriarch of a family of con artists who bamboozle their way into a wealthy household by providing needed services; everything goes according to plan until, of course, it doesn’t. To say the film has earned rave reviews is an understatement, as it earned the Cannes Film Festival’s coveted Palme d’Or by a unanimous vote, and many predict the darkly comedic social satire will win a host of other awards en route to the Oscars. We chatted with Song Kang-ho ahead of Parasite‘s release, and speaking through a translator, Song gave us his Five Favorite Films, revealing a dry sense of humor in the process: “I didn’t really have time to think about what my favorite movies are. I guess I’ve been busy.”
If you ask me about my cinematic preferences, a few years ago, there was a Hungarian film called Son of Saul. It’s a bit of a dark story, but I remember being impressed by that film. I think the filming technique expresses the message of the film very accurately and very effectively.
Since I picked a movie that’s not one of mine, let me pick one of mine for my second choice. There’s this movie called Parasite. [laughs] A lot of people seem to like that movie; I think I agree with them.
I’ll pick another one of my movies. It’s directed by Lee Chang-dong and it’s called Secret Sunshine. The matter of saving humanity — human salvation — that narrative was not told from a religious perspective. It was shown through humanity, the world where we live currently, through other humans. So I think the movie showed how we as people can truly be saved.
I didn’t appear in the movie, but Oldboy, directed by Park Chan-wook. That’s one of my favorites. The movie’s narrative talks about human desires that are taboo — you’re not supposed to talk about them. You think about them, but you’re not supposed to think about them. The movie tells these forbidden stories with daring, experimentally and artistically, and it tells them very well.
This is an old movie, and though he’s not with us any more, I really love the actor Steve McQueen. This movie, Papillon, I would call it his signature movie. The reason it’s one of my favorites is simple: it’s a Steve McQueen movie. He appears in it. I don’t think I need to say any more than that. [laughs] Of course, I like Bullitt, I like them all, but if I have to pick one, Papillon is my favorite Steve McQueen movie.
Ryan Fujitani for Rotten Tomatoes: You’ve been able to work with some incredible directors even from the very beginning of your film career. How have you been so good at choosing who to work with?
Song Kang-ho: To be more accurate, it’s not that I’m choosing to work with them. They chose me. They have chosen me.
Does working with each of them — from Lee Chang-dong to Park Chan-wook to Bong Joon-ho — bring something different out of you?
They’re all different. Everyone’s different. I find all the differences among them exciting, and I respect that. I respect all their differences.
What is it that Bong Joon-ho specifically brings out of you?
Something weird! [laughs]
Thumbnail image: ©Sony Pictures Classics, NEON, ©Cinema Service, Tartan Films
Parasite is currently playing in select theaters.