South Korean actor Song Kang-ho has big-screen staying power

Song Kang-ho has shone in many South Korean films over the years and the actor is making sure his name stays on the marquee

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 August, 2014, 10:53pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 9:26am

Various actors have rocketed to stardom during South Korea's contemporary film renaissance over the past 15 years - but few have managed to remain at those heights. Staying power seems an elusive quality for most - except for Song Kang-ho.

Eighteen years after making his film debut, aged 29, in Hong Sang-soo's The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996), the former thespian has turned in his most successful year yet. That's saying something for an actor who has appeared in many of contemporary South Korean cinema's most famous and well-regarded works, including the pioneering big-budget blockbuster Shiri (1999, directed by Kang Je-gyu), Kim Jee-woon's wrestling comedy The Foul King (2000), Park Chan-wook's Joint Security Area (2000), Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) and Thirst (2009), Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006), and Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine (2007).

Over the past 12 months, the 47-year-old has appeared in three hits that together sold close to 30 million tickets at home, where the 10-million-ticket mark has been individually achieved by just 10 Korean films to date. Set in the 15th century, Han Jae-rim's The Face Reader (2013) is about a man who can read people's nature and fate by looking at their face. The film earned praise for Song and sold nine million tickets on its release last September.

And then there's Snowpiercer. The science-fiction film about a train carrying the last remnants of humanity has enjoyed considerable critical kudos and general play internationally. Screened yesterday at Sarajevo, it has also featured at other film festivals including the Berlinale and was released in France, Italy, the US and many other territories where South Korean films don't usually play.

Directed by Bong Joon-ho, it's a mainly English-language work that sees Song holding his own in a strong ensemble cast that includes Chris Evans, John Hurt, Jamie Bell and Tilda Swinton. "Working with an international cast was a new experience for me. We got along fine, although it was hard to overcome the language barrier," Song says. "If it'd been any other person directing this project I would have turned it down. It's because I have a strong working relationship with Bong Joon-ho, and I trust him, that I decided to go abroad and shoot this film."

At home in South Korea, first-time director Yang Woo-seok's The Attorney - which opened in Hong Kong on June 19 and is still playing - is the most successful of Song's recent works. The human rights drama, which received a rapturous response from viewers with more than 11 million tickets sold, dominated public conversation for a time after its release at the end of 2013. So it's ironic to hear the actor say he initially turned the role down.

"Given that it is a story depicting the early life of president Roh Moo-hyun, who passed away not long ago [in 2009], I questioned whether I could perform the role in a way that would do honour to his family and the many people who admired him. I didn't have the self-confidence [so] I turned it down," he says.

But the screenplay refused to leave him. "It's such a strong story. After thinking it over for a week, I called the producer and told him, 'I can't get this story out of my head. I may not be up to it, but I'd like to give it a try'," Song says.

The film provided several challenges. Song and director Yang decided not to attempt a highly detailed impersonation, but in its vocal qualities and physicality, Song's performance recalls the late president in various ways.

The film's climax also involves some intense court scenes where the protagonist confronts powerful government figures who have arrested and tortured a group of young students.

"I'm more successful fleshing out my performances on the set, in a spontaneous way," Song says. "About 50 per cent is prepared in advance, and 50 per cent is done on the day of shooting. But for these court scenes, for the first time ever, I spent five days on the set by myself before we shot them. I knew they had to be perfect."

Song suspected The Attorney might make an impression, but he never imagined the overwhelming response from the audience. "It's not that you can't find this type of film in Hollywood or elsewhere," he says. "Films of this genre are common. But the Korean audience had a sore spot in their hearts that this film touched. They may have known about this story, but it hadn't yet been fully told."

Song is now in production on Lee Joon-ik's Sado, which will be released domestically in early 2015. He plays Yeongjo, the well-respected 18th-century monarch who ordered the death of his violent and mentally unstable son, Crown Prince Sado. "As I get older, I find myself drawn to roles that test me as an actor. For Sado, it's quite a difficult character to play. He's an elderly man, and the dialogue will take some effort to master."

A boom of sorts in historical films is under way in South Korean films and TV dramas. Recent film The Fatal Encounter starred Hyun Bin as Sado's son, Jeongjo, who took the crown, while Han Suk-kyu will portray Yeongjo in the upcoming SBS drama Secret Door.

"Many period films coming out these days are stylish and dynamic," Song says. " Sado by contrast focuses on character rather than spectacle. There's some danger that audiences might find it boring, but this film will offer well-developed characters and a strong focus on the performances. In that sense I'm feeling tremendous pressure," he says, laughing.

Sado sees Song continuing to move away from stereotype. "People have this image of me as a somewhat common, bumbling character, like the guy around the corner. Of course, just because you suit a particular character well doesn't mean that your actual personality is similar," he says.

"Privately, I'm more withdrawn and sensitive than people might expect. But I do think that it's important to take on roles such as The Attorney and Thirst that present a different image to the audience," the actor says.

As someone who has witnessed and taken part in the renaissance of South Korean cinema over the past decade and a half, Song identifies diverse content as the industry's current strength.

"I don't think the overall quality of South Korean films has improved compared to a decade ago, though obviously there have been some technical advances. But filmmakers have been able to explore a wide range of topics and subject matter," he says. "This seems to be one of the industry's greatest strengths. There has been a great effort on the part of many people to find new material and develop new stories."

But it's not an exaggeration to count Song among the industry's strong points. He has played a central role in so many recognised films that it's hard to imagine contemporary South Korean cinema without him. Years later, when people look back on this era, Song's expressive yet enigmatic face is likely to be one of its enduring images.