We talk to Korea’s biggest actor about Korea’s biggest film, Parasite…
It’s hardly as if either Song Kang-ho or Parasite need an introduction. From his earliest appearances in the mid-90s films like Shiri, Song quickly became one of the most recognisable faces in South Korean cinema. Thanks largely to his work with a generation of up-and-coming directors whose work was being noticed on a global scale. From The Quiet Family and The Foul King with Kim Jee-woon, through Green Fish with Lee Chang-dong, Joint Security Area and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance with Park Chan-wook and Memories of Murder with Bong Joon-ho. Simply put, he is one of Korea’s biggest stars, and virtually a guarantee of local box office success and international attention.
Similarly, you’d have to have crawled out from an extremely large rock to be unaware of the attention Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is getting. From the films eight-minute standing ovation at Cannes, to Bong Joon-ho was on mainstream American chat programme The Tonight Show, at the point we meet in mid-December the film is already topping most ‘best of year’ lists (including our own!). And that’s ahead of various nominations and wins, including Best Motion Picture – Foreign Language at the Golden Globes, four BAFTA nominations, and a record-breaking six nominations for a Korean film at the Academy Awards.
Song is in the middle of a whistle-stop series of preview screenings with director Bong Joon-ho, ahead of Bong’s entertaining BAFTA lecture. It’s downstairs at the Korean Cultural Centre London, just off Trafalgar Square, with the London Korean Film Festival’s very own festival director Hyun Jin Cho helping out with the translation. Over his career, Song has cultivated an everyman persona often accidentally caught in extraordinary circumstances, like a latter-day James Stewart or Gregory Peck, in what are – arguably at least – some of his most successful roles. In real life, he seems just as modest and down to earth, despite wearing a wonderfully fashionable jacket. ‘You might recognise the guy on top there?’, I tell him as I pass him a business card with his character from The Good, The Bad, The Weird on the flipside and he laughs. Yet it’s hard not to feel a little intimidated sitting in front of such a familiar face, it’s impression long burned on my memory from watching him in those early appearances.
The obvious place to start is, did you have any idea that Parasite would be so successful?
No not at all, because this is a very culturally specifically Korean film, and then [Bong Joon-ho] had some ideas that could translate very well. His ideas can come through very well, but we just did not expect this kind of access at all.
What did you think of the script when you first read it? Were you in any doubt that you might take the role?
When I first read the script, I thought it has such a unique structure. That was my first impression. And the character I was going play, it was very important. It’s kind of the centre of the story. That’s the sense I had when I read it.
The class struggles and differences are often a part of bonds work, these themes that you that appeal to you as well?
I wouldn’t say I’m kind of driven to this kind of big sort of social issues and stories. But I know that director Bong has this amazing ability to translate that into an amazing cinema. That’s something I’m really up for doing.
And so what is Bong like to work with, in comparison with other directors? And considering how long you’ve been working with him, has his style changed any over that time?
With Okja and Snowpiercer I think he made some new experiments cinematically and we did work on The Host together. On the surface, I don’t think there’s a huge kind of change. But the way he perceived our society, I would say is different, and it became even more creative.
So it’s been around 23 or 24 years since you made your film debut in The Day A Pig Fell Into The Well. I didn’t believe you didn’t train as a professional actor. But when you did start to get roles, did you have any aspirations about what sort of characters you wanted to play? You know, would that be a character actor? Or romantic lead? And if so, who are you looking to for your inspiration?
There is no nobody. Because I think because you’re inspired by someone you don’t become one. I think what’s important in acting is that you just think more about your internal work and think more about yourself and try to That you know your own self-confidence. So, for me, I was trying to focus on these aspects.
Should we read any anything into the fact that you’ve not worked with Hong Sang-soo again?
Well actually there was a proposal by Hong to work with him, I think 15 years ago, something like that. But I had another project so I couldn’t work with him. There’s no particular reason [laughs].
Thinking about that, obviously you’re a very busy actor. Have you ever had to turn down roles in films that you would have loved to have done but you were already committed to something else? And if so, can you tell me what some of those roles were?
Relatively speaking, there’s no film that I feel like, “Oh, I really wish I had done that.” Because there are a lot of proposals and I was just in a really fortunate situation where I could just choose good screenplays, and there was no work that I kind of wanted but never been proposed. So I’m very lucky.
When you began your career was a very opportune moment. It was the start of the Hallyu / Korean Wave, and you were in very major roles in some of the first films to really get noticed from that period, and working with those who would become the leading directors of the next decade, like Lee Chang-dong and obviously Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon. What was it like working at that time? Were you aware that this cultural shift was starting to happen and this global focus was starting to look at Korea?
There’s no other way to explain this other than saying, I’m just so lucky. All the great directors you mentioned, they started their career with me, we made films together. I’m so fortunate.
And in all the films you’ve worked on, do you have any personal favourites and why are they special?
Each work I worked on has a unique appeal and just has a different sort of box, office results and critical reviews. But that just that doesn’t make them, you know, less appealing to me personally. They’re all my beloved children. But all the directors that you talked about Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon and Lee Chang-dong, I think influenced me will probably the most and I think about the works I did with them the most.
But if I have to choose one, I think I may mention The Foul King, which I did with Kim Jee-woon.
[At this point I take my DVD copy out of my back. Yes, the Korean special edition with the shower cap.]
Oh Wow! [laughs]
That was basically the first opportunity I had as a lead actor. And also, you know, the story was very relatable to me personally. And that was so the making of it was an extreme challenge. So, because of all these reasons, I think that’s something that I can remember most.
An absolute favourite of mine too! Considering you’ve worked with so many directors and actors in your career, is there anyone, not just from Korea, but perhaps in the whole world, that you’d like to work with?
No, I can’t really say. There are so many by can’t really just pick one person. And I’m kind of the person I don’t think so kind of in global terms. I’m just kind of a modest guy.
While I’m in the UK, maybe I can talk UK directors, like for example, Ken Loach. I think he’s amazing! I think it’d be amazing to work with him, I like his works! But each country has amazing directors that I’d like to work with. And so I don’t really think about these things very much.
Have you ever considered writing or directing yourself?
Not at all.
And why is that?
There were some suggestions and I had some opportunities. Everyone I think has his or her own talents. I don’t think I have the ability to become a good director. So I’m really not interested in anything further.
You’re never going to try?
So, what films are you working on next?
Do you know the actor Lee Byung-hun? I’m gonna work with him on this new kind of commercial title. It’s kind of an aeroplane disaster, a high budget, big-budget film I’m working on.
And who’s the director on that?
You may not know Han Jae-rim? He made the film The Face Reader. And also, The Show Must Go On.
Yes. So two previous films, and another director you’ve worked with quite often. Is that because you enjoy working with those directors or that they enjoy working with you?
In practice, we are often chosen. We don’t necessarily choose directors. So the ones I’ve worked with before, they often suggested their new projects, and you know, we get on very well, there’s no reason why I should reject them.
So coming back to the success of Parasite, I don’t remember a point where we’ve seen a Korean film get this kind of success. To have it featured on American chat shows, nominated for various awards and so on to this extent. Considering your length of time in Korean cinema, what do you think that means for its future of Korean cinema.
A film like Parasite could be a very kind of positive stimulation to the Korean film industry. And maybe not all the films will achieve the same level of success, you know, it will be very difficult, but I think this will definitely inspire a lot of young filmmakers to make very creative and new works.
Okay, thank you. Gamsahamnida.
Parasite is released in UK cinemas from 7th February 2020. Director Bong Joon-Ho will be appearing live at a preview event on Monday 3rd February at Curzon Mayfair with over 140 cinemas taking part, allowing film fans nationwide to be involved. Screenings start at 6pm. Tickets are on sale now.
Thanks to Yonah Sichrovsky, Lu Yin Wai and Martin Sandison for assistance on questions.