a long talk

The Face of Korean Cinema Is Anxious, Afraid, and Full of Metaphors

Song Kang-ho on Parasite and the exquisite, existential pain of acting.

Photo: Robert Maxwell
Photo: Robert Maxwell
Photo: Robert Maxwell

If the tremendous wave of Korean cinema from the past 25 years has a face, it’s that of Song Kang-ho.

Starting with a bit part in Hong Sang-soo’s The Day a Pig Fell Into a Well in 1996, Song became one of the preeminent actors of our time, first with a string of box-office hits (Shiri, The Foul King, JSA) and a range of work that brimmed with the thrill of Korean filmmaking coming into its own, from the everyday lyricism of Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine) to the high operatic violence of Park Chan-wook (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Thirst). Often he has played working-class heroes like taxi drivers or barbers who get caught up in the maelstrom of Korean history, but still, he clearly relishes zanier, madcap parts like Kim Jee-woon’s western The Good, the Bad, the Weird (he was the weird).

Perhaps no other director has showcased his flexibility as fully as Bong Joon-ho, whose own tone seamlessly blends absurdity with tragedy. Their latest outing, Parasite, has debuted to lavish praise and stars Song as the slightly pitiful and casually employed patriarch Kim Ki-taek. They’ve known each other for over 20 years, first meeting after Bong watched him in Green Fish in 1997. Even then, Bong took the long view, not casting Song until his 2003 feature, Memories of Murder, as Park Doo-man, a detective on the hunt for one of Korea’s most notorious serial killers. Bong continued to keep Song close: as the hapless, narcoleptic father in the 2006 monster movie The Host, and then as the drug-addled code-cracker in Bong’s English-language debut Snowpiercer. If Parasite is director Bong reaching the height of his powers, the same could be said for Song, who manages to convey bottomless seas of resentment and despair with the barest flicker across his face as Ki-taek.

Song enjoys his privacy, and before I meet him in person in Los Angeles, his team informs me that he doesn’t like to field questions about his personal life. Even though Bong has known him for well over two decades, he seems genuinely baffled by Song’s inner workings; he tells me he still finds the actor “mysterious,” which of course is why he keeps returning to him. “He’s a genius,” says Bong. “Even though he’s saying dialogue I’ve written and doing what we’ve blocked out, he has this spark that you can’t predict from moment to moment: boom! Like an explosion. He does something slightly different with every take. He’s able to create this uncanny feeling like he’s experiencing the situation for the very first time — almost as though we’re filming a documentary and he’s a real person going through it. It’s magical.”

Song is observant and dignified in person, and speaks in Korean with the elegance of a philosopher. Over coffee at his hotel in Beverly Hills, we spoke at length about the nature of acting, his enduring relationship with Bong Joon-ho, and why he has been drawn to such challenging and brutal films throughout his career.

This interview does discuss the end of Parasite, as certain questions indicate. Feel free to skip around them.

My understanding is that director Bong first reached out to you while he was working on Motel Cactus in the ’90s. What was your first impression of him when you met him? 
Director Bong has a really fascinating “voice color.” What I mean by that is, sometimes a person has a “voice color” that’s not too appealing, and it might affect my first impression. But in this case, I thought, Wow, his voice really has a sense of presence. There’s a certain credibility that comes with proper vocal presence. Also, he was exceedingly polite and courteous when we spoke that it completely upended my notions of how an AD [associate director] acts. Usually ADs have a bit of a rough edge to them, and they tend to condescend to supporting actors or bit-part actors. When we first discussed working together for Memories of Murder, this was a huge factor for me. I did really enjoy his debut film, Barking Dogs Never Bite, and that, together with my initial impression of him, helped me make a decision very quickly, without agonizing over it too much.

How has he changed over the years? 
I’ve said in the past that the only thing that has changed about him is his weight, but that was a joke. In actuality, nothing has changed about him, but he’s also clearly evolving, and this film is proof of that. Parasite was like him submitting his “progress report” to Korea. His artistic ambitions have evolved into a more formidable force.

How would you describe his artistic process?
There’s something very unique to director Bong in how he fixes his gaze upon our society. The way he looks at society has always been extremely sharp and cutting. There’s a sense of continuation in his works all the way to Parasite about this enormous world we’ve built for ourselves and its paradoxes, and how the rat race of the human condition exposes the various moral gaps in our nature. He never lets go of that. Through constant investigation, he’s able to solidify all of it into an artistic vision through an admittedly grueling process. Parasite is a work where you can feel the ultimate sense of artistic satisfaction. I’m sure there will be more amazing films in the future, but that’s how I feel right now at this moment.

Director Bong has long gestation periods for all of his films. When did you first know about Parasite
I don’t remember the exact date, but I’ve known about this project for a few years. I didn’t know exactly what the plot was, but I knew generally what kind of story he wanted to tell, so we were saying let’s work together from maybe about two, three years ago.

Did you discuss the character early on during the script-writing phase? 
We’ve never had a discussion like that. Whether it was from our first work together in Memories of Murder or in Parasite, he never asks, “This is the kind of character you’re portraying, what do you think?” He understands how I work, and we just know each other really well at this point.

So tell me a little bit about your process when you first read the script. How do you begin formulating a character like Kim Ki-taek?
Most projects feel a bit overwhelming at first. For Parasite, how would I portray this character Kim Ki-taek, this “invertebrate”? Someone who has no backbone at first, is indecisive and ineffectual as a leader of the household. What kind of father is he? What kind of leader of a household is he? How has he lived his life so far? How am I going to be portraying the events that are to come? I have a bit of anxiety about this part of my job; it’s the same for director Bong, too. We’re excited to see what comes of it, because in the beginning, we don’t really know. I don’t know how to make the connections I need to make. This anxiety, as well as excitement, both come over me at the same time. It’s scary because I am the one that has to pull this off.

I expect every actor goes through some version of this. I can’t say from the beginning, “Yes, I can play this role very well,” with complete confidence. I’m a bit fearful of how I’m going to figure all this out, and there’s a sense of uncertainty — I can’t quite see how this is all going to play out in the future. But the process of figuring these things out one by one, and the sense of accomplishment you get from that, all of those things build toward the completion of the film.

The evolution of an ordinary character suddenly evolving into a courageous one is something that does come through in many of your characters’ arcs. 
Yes, that’s true.

What drives you to take those types of roles? 
In some ways it’s the fate I’ve chosen as an actor. I have to make these choices in order to make a living, to put food on the table for my children, money for shopping … haha. I’m just joking. That was just a joke.

Well, it’s still your choice to take on extremely challenging parts though, isn’t it? You could make a living doing easier roles in simpler productions. 
Hmm, yes, but humans are a bit — how shall I say? — self-destructive. I don’t necessarily want something that’s too easy. Even though it’s a very painful and exhaustive process, the feeling I get when I’m able to do it — that feeling is what drives me to continue to come back to these roles.

I’d like to discuss the climax of Parasite. How do you interpret your character’s actions in the end of the film? 
That’s what reality is like. Reality is way more violent, more impulsive. Things happen more unexpectedly than they do in films. A person’s emotions seem inexplicable to us at the time, but if you really think about it, there’s a point where you can [understand them]. I think about what the shape of that looks like. Meaning, the actions that Ki-taek takes seem impulsive, but in reality they aren’t at all. You can see that unfold throughout the film. You see a person’s last shred of dignity become more and more wounded, and what a painful process that is. In some ways, it’s not about what you smell, or what that wealthy man is doing; they’re complete strangers. That man in the basement, he wasn’t acting like that because he felt a hatred for me, but it’s an accumulation of everything. We’re all strangers to each other, and when we feel a sense of hatred toward the have-nots and express that hatred, it culminates in this. Ki-taek feels that viscerally. So even though it feels surprising at the time, you start to have a lot of different thoughts once the film ends.

And what are those thoughts? 
This is not the type of situation where 100 out of 100 people would say, “I would probably have done the same thing.” It’s not the type of climax you often see and nod along with. It could feel challenging. “It made me feel uncomfortable” is a common reaction people had, but director Bong’s intention with this film is not to fixate on the violence. Deep down, he wants us to think, Why do we have to live like this? What exactly is this social structure that we’ve built for ourselves? Who are the real parasites: Is it Ki-taek’s family, or is it the wealthy? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly which family is the parasite, which is the real victim. I don’t think this film was made with that type of black-and-white morality or internal logic. Even though he titled it Parasite, director Bong is striving for a society in which we aren’t ultimately looking to be parasites to each other, but live together in harmony, dreaming of a world where we are all in this together.

What would you say is the most challenging role you’ve taken on so far?
I’m not just saying this, but they’re all challenging. For example, I once did a comedic film called The Foul King about 20 years ago that was very physically taxing, as I had to play the role of a wrestler. Even the films that received a lot of praise and were successful in the box office were difficult. The movies that failed were difficult because of the failure.

Let’s discuss something more specific: Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was truly a shock to cinema — not just in Korea but worldwide. How did you decide to do that movie?
At first, I declined the role. In fact, I declined three times. At the time in the Korean film industry, a film like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance could not exist in that environment. Nowadays, you have directors like Park Chan-wook or a slew of young directors filming things that are even more raw and hard-boiled, but at the time, it was shocking. I was thinking, How are you going to make a commercial film like this? Who is going to want to see it?

The reason we were able to film Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is because the movie JSA had been such a commercial success right before that. Otherwise, there’s no way you could make something that hard-boiled, anti-commercial, and violent — a film that had really no merits as a commercial film. But once JSA was so successful, you could see director Park’s lifelong ambitions as a filmmaker come up to the surface.

So why did you do it? 
This is a bit ironic, a bit paradoxical, and a bit of a dilemma all at the same time, but the reason I eventually said yes was the exact same reason why I declined three times in the first place. I’ll try to explain: What I mean is, there must have been some reason why I said no in the first place, right? But as time passed, I realized that that was the reason I must take this part: because it was so anti-commercial and so shocking. Would a film like this even be possible? That was incredibly scary and anxiety-inducing, but as more and more time went by, that became the reason why I wanted to do it. From the standpoint of an actor, that’s quite a dilemma. Well, maybe not a dilemma, but an irony.

It’s similar to what I said before when you asked why are you doing something so challenging and difficult when you can do something more ordinary and easy? Why do you keep choosing these films that you seem to hate or find extremely challenging? It’s very similar to that. That’s why we do it. It’s painful, but if you go through that experience, you want to feel that sense of achievement, whether it succeeds or fails. And I feel like this is something all actors, nay, all artists, feel to a certain extent. I feel like that is the artist’s ambition.

Was it difficult on set as well?
Actually, once we got started, it was so much fun. I really loved the experience, so I was thinking, Oh, wow, maybe a film like this can make an impact on our industry. But of course it was an utter failure. But to be honest, we all expected it.

But that’s just from a box-office standpoint. If you think about the film’s legacy now …
Yeah, that’s true. Now that film gets highly praised within film circles, and even the general audience is beginning to praise that film. But at the time, there had never been a film like that ever, in the history of Korean film. So we did suffer the consequences of that. Not only myself, but the other actors, the director as well. But I remember director Park felt a very distinct sense of accomplishment, even back then. A lot of young filmmakers, including director Bong, were amazed by that film. Wow, how could you make a film like this? I’m sure there was a bit of envy along with amazement at the time. But from the standpoint as an actor, it was bittersweet. I really wanted that film to succeed. But of course, 20 years later, to see that film be reevaluated in the way it has does make me feel a sense of pride.

While Bong Joon-ho might have become the first Korean director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, Korean filmmaking has long been a significant force in cinema. How do you think Korean filmmaking arrived at this point? 
We are a very small country, but we have a very long and tortured history. It was never a comfortable existence for Koreans, as we were invaded many times, and of course, we are a divided country. And in a lot of ways, Korea is in a lot of chaos politically, socially, and culturally right now. Unless you bring a lot of intensity to your life, it’s hard to survive. It’s not like California, with its peace and plenitude; Korea is a bit different. Throughout our 5,000-year history, we’ve had to overcome a lot of challenges, and in overcoming those things, we’ve become stronger as a people, and naturally artists feed off that energy. It becomes a resource for them. That’s how Korean films, from such a small country, were able to impact the international film community in the way it has. Of course, you need wonderful directors like director Bong, Lee Chang-dong, or Park Chan-wook, but the foundation for their work lies in the history of our nation.

There was a government blacklist under the conservative government that would deny state support for filmmakers like Park Chan-wook. Were you ever able to see any effects of the so called blacklist as you were working on your roles?
The impact of the blacklist really can’t be felt on the surface. Then it wouldn’t be a blacklist at all. I’ve heard a lot of stories about how producers and investors (more so than actors like me or directors) were impacted by the blacklist. You probably don’t see its effects on most actors that are on the forefront and in the mainstream, because if you were to do so, it would be immediately apparent to the general public, and it would be brought to light very quickly. So in my opinion, the nefarious effects of the blacklist are probably most apparent in areas that we can’t readily see or hear about.

Is that disappointing to see as an artist? 
Well, we need to go beyond disappointment and make sure we get rid of it. Whether it’s now or in the future, things like that have no place in our world. For Korean society to evolve into the future, we need to get rid of things like that.

Why do you think directors like Bong Joon-ho, Lee Chang-dong, Park Chan-wook keep returning to you as an actor? 
I don’t think there’s an artist out there that wants to do something predictable, or something that anyone could do. What’s predictable is to think a film actor needs to be handsome, but to an artist, they don’t like being trapped in that stereotype. Why does it always have to be someone handsome or cool that makes films? Why can’t we make films with people that are normal or normal-looking? It all starts there. Same thing with acting. An actor has a sense of what a typical director expects, and it isn’t that much fun to do exactly what’s expected of you. So, when an actor does something completely unexpected or expresses an emotion in a surprising way, directors like Park or Bong (or anyone else) respond to that. I feel like that’s what I’ve been doing for about 20 years or so.

How do you manage to continue to evade expectations?
I really can’t stand the idea of being someone people can predict. So, I’ve always been curious about how I can express something in a new way. For example, if you have to express a coffee mug, you can’t suddenly become a glass cup. A coffee mug is a coffee mug, and we always expect a coffee mug to look a certain way. But when we see a coffee mug we’ve never seen before, that’s when we’re surprised, and think, Wow, I didn’t know such coffee mugs existed!

But if a glass cup came along and insisted that it was a coffee mug, that doesn’t make any sense. So this is probably one of the most difficult things about acting: sometimes we have to talk about a coffee mug that has never existed. Sometimes we think it would be so much easier to just use a glass cup, but that makes us escape our essence.

Yeah, it’s something like that.

This interview was translated with assistance from Jay Choi and has been edited and condensed.

Bong Joon-ho was working on the script and as an assistant director on the film Motel Cactus from 1997 when he first reached out to meet Song. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance kicked off the first of what’s known as Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy,” which includes Oldboy and Lady Vengeance and became one of the defining films of Korean cinema of the aughts. Also it must be said that Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance would be more accurately translated from the Korean as “Vengeance Is Mine.” Joint Security Area opened in 2000 selling over 5 million tickets and launching the director Park Chan-wook and its stars Lee Byung-hun and Song into stardom — albeit on very different paths. (Lee Byung-hun has tried to make the Hollywood crossover in action films like the G.I. Joe franchise and The Magnificent Seven.) Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance opened domestically in three theaters in South Korea in August of 2005, grossing $3,275 in its first weekend and $45,289 cumulatively — a commercial failure by any measure. Beginning under the conservative president Lee Myung-bak, the Korean Film Council has kept a blacklist of 10,000 names of people in the filmmaking industry who have been critical of the government, which included some high-profile names like Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho. The list continued under the presidency of Park Geun-hye until her impeachment.
The Face of Korean Cinema Is Anxious and Full of Metaphors