Even before Parasite turned him into a global name, Song Kang-ho, South Korea’s biggest movie star, has led the industry in the country for over two decades as the anchor of a series of critical and commercial smashes, frequently combining art and commerce.
Fans of Korea’s enduring everyman have had a lonely pandemic as the star hasn’t been seen since the period drama The King’s Letters in 2019.
That wait will soon come to an end as he has several films coming out this year, including the aviation disaster film Emergency Declaration and Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda’s Korean debut Broker.
On the occasion of his 55th birthday, we rank the incomparable star’s 12 best performances – all of them films, since Song remains that rare Korean actor who has yet to appear in a K-drama.
12. No. 3 (1997)
Song appeared in several films in small roles in the mid-1990s, including the debuts of directors Hong Sang-soo and Lee Chang-dong, but the role that put him on the map was as gang captain Jo-pil in this landmark 1997 gangster comedy.
The young actor was able to show off his comic chops and everyman appeal in this deadpan role which paved the way for much bigger roles.
11. The Age of Shadows (2016)
In Kim Jee-woon’s sumptuous period spy yarn, Song plays Korean police captain Lee Jung-chool, who works for the Japanese colonial government but finds his loyalties split when he is approached by the resistance movement he is supposed to be ferreting out.
Despite the tricky moral waters his character navigates, Song draws a compelling portrait of a genial character who is only out for himself, until his conscience begins to gnaw at him.
10. Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)
Possibly the best of director Park Chan-wook and Song’s collaborations is the Vengeance Trilogy opener Sympathy for Mr Vengeance.
This bleak and iconic film forces the star to suppress his performative instincts as he plays a lugubrious factory boss whose daughter has been kidnapped by a mute disgruntled worker and his anarchist girlfriend.
Though he is less expressive here than in his other roles, Song brings a brooding menace to the part, which adds to the film’s harrowing impression.
9. The Throne (2015)
Lee Joon-ik’s Joseon Era drama finds Song at his most stately, playing King Yeongjo, who infamously condemned his own son to death by having him locked in a rice chest for eight days.
Song’s Yeongjo struggles with his conscience but remains unbending in this richly realised examination of strict Confucian codes that drives to an emotional climax.
Amid the formalities of the King’s palace, Song’s focuses his performance into his mournful and expressive eyes.
8. Thirst (2009)
In his most controversial role, Song incarnates catholic priest Sang-hyun in Park Chan-wook’s lush and wicked horror Thirst.
Sang-hyun’s faith and libido undergo a radical overhaul when he becomes a vampire after volunteering for a medical trial and he soon engages in a torrid relationship with a young woman.
Song experiments with a different kind of physicality in his most atypical role in this lacerating takedown of social mores.
7. A Taxi Driver (2017)
The full force of Song’s star power comes to bear on this smash hit political drama , in which he plays a Seoul taxi driver who escorts a German reporter into the heart of the Gwangju Massacre in May 1980.
Equally wily and pathetic, Song’s Kim Man-seob, who is based on a real figure whose identity was unknown at the time of filming, channels the frustrations and pain of a generation. Song softens the dark journey in a role laced with comedy and nostalgic nods.
6. The Foul King (2000)
The most memorable of Song’s four collaborations with director Kim Jee-woon is surely The Foul King, which was the actor’s first ever leading part.
In a highly relatable role, Song plays a put-upon bank clerk who takes to wrestling when he tires of being stuck in his overbearing boss’s headlocks.
Song is an actor who performs with his whole body, and many of his roles are built upon his facility for physical comedy. Those skills were put to their best use in this hilarious and surprisingly affecting turn as one of screen wresting’s most unusual practitioners.
5. The Host (2006)
With a shock of blond hair and terrible table manners, the clumsy riverside vendor Gang-du cuts an unlikely figure as a hero, but that’s just what he is forced to become when a monster emerges from the Han River and snatches away his daughter.
Featuring Song’s most uproarious performance – one of many in the film – Bong Joon-ho ’s The Host remains the biggest hit in Song’s career and an enduring testament to his screen charisma.
4. Joint Security Area (2000)
In his first partnership with Park Chan-wook, Song plays the avuncular North Korean Sergeant Oh Kyeong-pil who, along with a comrade, strikes an unlikely friendship with two South Korean soldiers along the Joint Security Area separating the two Koreas.
Song’s disarming performance makes him one of the stand-outs of this memorable tale, one of the original hits of the modern Korean film era. This is also the first of his four collaborations with fellow star Lee Byung-hun.
3. Secret Sunshine (2007)
After hitting the big time in the early 2000s, Song has rarely played second fiddle to anyone, but he does so here as Jeon Do-yeon’s co-star in Lee Chang-dong's masterful tale of grief and redemption.
Song plays countryside mechanic Jong-chan, who takes a shine to Jeon’s single mother, who has just moved to town.
Jong-chan tries to be a Good Samaritan, but nothing is ever that simple in this devastating treatise on contemporary faith, which features one of Song’s most layered performances.
2. Parasite (2019)
Those who hadn’t heard of the great Song Kang-ho were treated to one of his finest performances in Bong Joon-ho’s Academy Award-winning smash Parasite.
Though cruelly robbed of an acting nomination at the Oscars, Song impresses as the affable patriarch of the poor Kim family, who finagle their way into the richer Park household.
Bong’s delicious dialogue flows off Song’s tongue in undulating streams in a seemingly effortless performance that belies its exacting construction.
1. Memories of Murder (2003)
If Song has a signature role, it is surely as bumbling countryside detective Park Doo-man in Bong Joon-ho’s iconic Memories of Murder, which has frequently been cited as the greatest Korean film of all time.
Though Doo-man is an uncouth brute and a tool of an oppressive regime, Song shows us a relatable character who wins our sympathy throughout the course of one of the most thrilling stories ever to come out of the country.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.