“For filmmakers, it’s simple, we just want to work with great actors and Song Kang-ho is such a great actor that it’s fearful how good he is…”

Bong Joon-ho[1]

Bong Joon-ho’s auteurism is defined by his rich artistic collaboration with the star-actor Song Kang-ho – a lengthy and productive creative partnership between filmmaker and lead actor that is reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, Satyajit Ray and Soumitra Chatterjee (whose recent death has been mourned in India and beyond), Ingmar Bergman and Max von Sydow, Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni, Martin Scorsese and Robert de Niro, and Wong Kar-wai and Tony Leung Chiu-wai. This is a timely appraisal of their unique teamwork as they both celebrate career milestones and global recognition in 2020 – Bong Joon-ho celebrated the 20th anniversary of his first feature while Song Kang-ho’s considerable body of work was recognised at the prestigious Locarno International Film Festival in 2019 as the first Asian actor to win its Excellence award, and more recently, has been included in a New York Times list of greatest actors of the twenty-first century. “Cinematic comrades”, Song and Bong picked each other as the most inspiring partner in their professional  lives. In his moment of triumph at the 72nd Annual Cannes Film Festival in 2019, the director reserved a brief moment for his friend and creative comrade of twenty years. As he was handed the Palme d’or, Bong immediately turned toward Song and kneeling down, presented his star with the glinting trophy, as if to say “you’re my best actor.”[2]

Gisaengchung (Parasite, 2019) is Bong and Song’s fourth collaboration ­– following Sarinui chueok (Memories of Murder, 2003), Goemul (The Host, 2006) and Snowpiercer (2013) – and it already appears to be at least their third project that will be regarded as a masterwork of contemporary world cinema, portraying the dark side of South Korean society through its complex interweaving of black comedy, social injustice triggered by class discrimination, and scathing political commentary. Such narratives are commonly identifiable with the New Korean Cinema within which both auteur and actor are historically located, the latter considered the face of new wave filmmaking from the 1990s and beyond. New Wave filmmakers, belonging to the “386 Generation”, reputedly a reference to the then latest 386 Intel computer chip, included Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sang-soo, Park Chan-wook, Kim Ki-duk, Kim Jee-woon and Bong Joon-ho, most of whom, with the exception of Lee, had begun their directorial careers in their thirties, attended college in the turbulent 1980s, and were born in the 1960s. The New Wave saw the emergence of “commercial auteurism”[3] of these prodigiously talented filmmakers onto the international scene as it transformed an insular national film industry into a global cinematic powerhouse.

Bong Joon-ho’s films in particular played a vital role in the industry’s rebirth[4]: “Memories of Murder out-earned all Hollywood imports in 2003 […] while The Host [was] the highest-grossing movie ever released in Korea, foreign or domestic, and was seen by more than a quarter of the country’s population.”[5] However, it is Parasite’s recognition by the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences on February 9, 2020 that has officially announced the arrival of South Korean Cinema on the global stage for mainstream Euro-American audiences, who may have hitherto struggled to “overcome the one inch tall barrier of subtitles” that Bong wittily alluded to in his speech whilst accepting the Golden Globe award for Best Foreign-Language Film on January 5, 2020. This sense of an industry finally getting its just deserts is reflected in the congratulatory tweet posted by Darcy Paquet, film critic, author, and English subtitler of Parasite: “I hope that all Korean filmmakers can share in this moment and be proud, because it’s the tremendous hard work and professionalism of the industry as a whole that makes a movie like Parasite possible.”[6]

A vital element of Bong’s visionary filmmaking is his longstanding artistic collaboration with actor Song, for whom he creates roles that no one else can conceivably perform. For Bong, “simply deciding that Song Kang-ho would co-star in the film is what allowed him to embolden his approach.” As he admits himself, “there was a relief that came from the certain expectation that if this actor plays this role, even the controversial parts will definitely be convincing to the audience.”[7] No matter what the dialogues are or the situations, when Bong writes a script knowing Song will play the protagonist, he becomes bolder as a writer and more comfortable with scenes that he thinks may be risky or lines which he thinks may have difficulty persuading the audience. Even though Bong feels this anxiety, he becomes more confident because he has “so much faith in his persuasive power as an actor.”[8] For instance, “the script of Parasite, especially, has bold, unexpected, or somewhat controversial moments in its latter part […] but having Song Kang-ho in mind resolved [his] fears and concerns”[9]

There is a reciprocity of trust and complete faith as Song tends to agree on Bong projects without looking at the scripts since knowing that he will be working “within a virtuoso’s strong aura”[10] puts him at ease. Interestingly enough, the star actor knew at once that Parasite would be a very special film because when he first read the script, he had the same feeling when reading the script of Memories of Murder. He recalls that his heart was racing, it felt so fresh, and there was so much vitality to the screenplay.

As Nam Lee recounts:

Bong and Song’s first meeting dates back to the late 1990s even before they first collaborated on Memories of Murder. Song was an unknown actor when he went to have an audition for a film on which Bong worked as assistant director. He did not get the role but he received a long, very polite message explaining why he did not get the role, and hoping to have the chance to work with him one day. Song went on to become a big star while Bong’s first feature film was not successful at the box-office. Bong wanted to cast Song in Memories of Murder but was not sure if he would because Song was a big name. However, when Bong sent Song the script, Song agreed to join telling him of their first encounter and how he had already decided then, he would work with Bong.[11]

Bong’s indebtedness to the star actor is obvious when he mentions that Song joining the cast of Memories of Murder helped finance the film and so Song made Bong a professional film director.[12] In a nation where seniority and respect for elders count considerably, Lee points out that Song is older than Bong and it seems that they share brotherly affection for each other.

After a modest debut in 1996 in Hong Sang-soo’s Dwaejiga umul-e ppajin nal (The Day the Pig Fell into the Well), Song appeared in minor comic roles, and found national recognition in a supporting role as agent Lee Jang-gil in Kang Je-gyu’s 1999 high-octane spy thriller, Shiri, considered by film scholars as the first Korean blockbuster that triggered a commercial boom leading to the miraculous recovery of the Chungmuro. As the then-highest grossing and most expensive Korean film, it broke box-office records previously held by Titanic (1997), and sparked a cultural phenomenon known as the “Shiri Syndrome.” The following years witnessed a steady rise to stardom with Park Chan-wook’s millennial thriller set in the volatile DMZ, Gonggonggyeonbbiguyeok (Joint Security Area, 2000); an anarchic main role of an amateur wrestler in Banchikwang (The Foul King, 2000); and the much-feted role of a lifetime as a clueless, clumsy local detective Park Doo-man in Bong’s 2003 classic Memories of Murder, based on South Korea’s first unsolved serial killings in the small town of Hwaseong, near Seoul. Song recalls these prolific early years from 2000 to 2003, when he acted in JSA, The Foul King, Memories of Murder, as a period in his career when he “really started enjoying and discovering his potential” – when he felt that “great joy and catharsis.”[13] Subsequently over three decades, he has won many prestigious national and international awards, and been quite prolific in his output, acting in a wide range of genres, from Kimchi Westerns (such as Jo-eun nom nappeun nom isanghan nom [The Good, The Bad, The Weird, 2008]) to horror-melodramas (Boksuneun naui geot [Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, 2002] Bakjwi [Thirst, 2009]), a testament to his extraordinary versatility. In 2016 he became the first Korean actor to surpass a cumulative total of 100 million box-office admissions in the movies he has starred in. This magnetic actor, described by Tilda Swinton as “one of the protean greats of world cinema”, has starred in nearly everything from action-filled blockbusters to art house classics with the intriguing exception of romances.[14] In this article I therefore intend to explore various facets of this dynamic working relationship, while at the same time analysing the actor’s performative tools and repertoire.

Expressive voice and verbal dexterity

Patrick Brzeski points out that “in general in Korea, great acting is often associated with the voice and elocution. Song is considered such a master of this aspect of screen acting that the relish and exactitude with which he says his lines is something that can often be felt even by non-Korean speakers watching his work with subtitles.”[15] Paquet opines that “he can give the impression of being a character that’s out of control and a bit all over the place, but his delivery – what he does with his voice – it’s always so precise. It’s part of what gives his characters such a big impact.”[16] For instance, to prepare for the role of the North Korean Sergeant Oh Kyeong-pil in Joint Security Area, Song spent hours with North Korean defectors, mastering the nuances of the Northern accent. For the master auteur, “Song’s ordinariness was his uniqueness, noting that he skillfully delivers his characters in an inimitable voice that makes his performance genuinely special.”[17] According to Paquet,

Song Kang-ho has many strengths as an actor, but among them is a remarkable verbal dexterity. He is able to express character through his voice in a way that few actors can. In that sense, he is a natural fit with Bong Joon-ho, because dialogue is also quite central to Bong’s cinematic style. Each character in a Bong Joon-ho film has a very distinctive voice and manner of speaking. In Parasite, when you listen to a scene of dialogue between the members of the Kim family, the different tones and rhythms of their speech play off each other in a way that feels like music. When Bong Joon-ho does the casting for his films, he is naturally drawn to actors who use their voice in a very expressive way. So in that regard it’s not surprising that Bong Joon-ho and Song Kang-ho would enjoy working with each other.[18]

As previously observed, the voice modulation and intonation of Song’s character Kim Ki-taek and of the entire Kim family in Parasite make an important contribution to the comedic drama – for instance, when they are rehearsing their lines whilst conniving to replace the old housekeeper (brilliantly played by Lee Jung-eun) with the Kim mother; or the half-whispers of Kim Ki-taek when speaking to his distraught daughter about another plan in the deluge after they narrowly escape being caught by the Park family; or when Kim Ki-taek suddenly starts yelling, his diction and enunciation of words become noticeably emphatic, slower and more pronounced.

The Everyman

Nam Lee observes that “Song Kang-ho is known for perfectly portraying [the] typical Korean everyday man character. His appearance and demeanour resonate with Korean audiences as a typical everyday man. This ordinary Korean typicality shines brightly in Memories of Murder in which he represents the traditional, premodern style of investigation. Also in The Host and Parasite, he portrays [an] ordinary father of a lower class family.”[19] To quote Song himself, “over the years, the characters I’ve played have appealed to the Korean audience more as familiar, very realistic people that they can relate to, rather than somebody from a fantasy world.”[20] In fact two decades ago, Song’s reputation for being an actor’s actor was established with the commercial success of Joint Security Area, in which his everyman image was adroitly exploited by New Wave auteur Park Chan-wook, who explained that “under the circumstances where South Korean society had ‘otherized’ North Korea, the sense of folksiness and familiarity that people drew [to] Song was the most crucial virtue.”[21] Although Park has always drawn on the delicacy and precision in Song’s skillset more than his freewheeling potential, the actor’s ever-present everyman appeal helped bridge the divide that had existed in Korea’s cinema as much as in the political realities of the peninsula.[22] According to Paquet there have been many “examples in Song’s films where he plays someone, often from a provincial region, who at first glance appears unsophisticated and not at all urbane or thoughtful […] But as the film goes on, he starts to change, and reveals himself to have much more depth. Memories of Murder played a major part in establishing this side of Song Kang-ho’s persona as Korea’s everyman.”[23]

Portraying fatherhood is a cornerstone of the Song persona. Minor roles became the building blocks of his present-day trademark image of a cunning yet sloppy, hilarious father of a low-income family, a role that is somewhat reprised in his turn as the bumbling, bereaved single parent in The Host. This distinctive image of fatherhood earned him many box-office hits such as Hyojadong Ibalsa (The President’s Barber, 2004), Gwansang (The Face-Reader, 2013), The Attorney (2013), A Taxi-Driver (2017), all seemingly culminating, and reaching perfect maturation in terms of restraint and focus in the character of the defeated patriarch of the lower-class family, Kim Ki-taek in Parasite (2019). Song describes this character as “a kind of invertebrate […] as representing the middle-aged Korean man whose life just hasn’t worked out the way he wanted, but he still has to somehow adapt and find a way to live.”[24]  Kim Ki-taek has a dark core – his many failures, which he does not hide from his son, explain why he believes that the best plan in life is to have no plan.[25]

Furthermore, Song has a unique ability to explore depths in his characters, which aids in the multi-generic, nuanced and unpredictable storytelling and narratives typical of New Wave auteurs. As Bong observes, “it always feels like there will be a new layer to uncover”,[26] which is useful when conveying dramatic tonal shifts. In Parasite, Kim Ki-taek is the figure who makes the biggest leap in terms of character development. From being a directionless slacker, Song’s character undergoes massive transformations, but these happen very naturally just like life which cannot be just happy or sad, even during tragic moments there can be comedy. Thus, the film presents that slice of life which is ever-changing, and happily, Song finds it quite natural to portray all these emotions at once. Similarly, Bong says it is impossible to stick to one tone throughout the film – mixing it all up happens naturally.[27]

Moreover, Bong cites a telling instance of Song’s instinctive understanding of character psychology when shooting for Lee Chang-dong’s Miryang (Secret Sunshine, 2007). In a scene from the film taking place in a church, we see Song’s character sitting at the back of the church while the main female protagonist is sobbing. Here, it was Song himself who suggested his character should sit in the back row because he felt this was where his character should sit, even though he would be out of focus. This is the sort of animal instinct he has as an actor and the kind of understanding he shows for his characters.[28]

Ensemble acting and staging

In order to play everyday men in an understated way, Song has the commendable – and rare – ability to tone down his stardom in an ensemble cast in a manner appropriate for a supporting role such as in Secret Sunshine. He can also vary his method of acting depending on the project. For Memories of Murder he was faithful to the spontaneous emotion that reached him on set, resulting a great deal of improvisation. Parasite, in contrast, had meticulously written lines and required highly coordinated blocking.[29] Song conveyed his happiness to Bong because it had been so long since he had participated in an ensemble cast, as he had become accustomed to being the lead actor driving the narrative on his own. Parasite gave him the very precious and rare opportunity of acting alongside some great actors for which he was very grateful. According to the actor, “when you play a small role you are able to objectively look at yourself and give even better performances.”[30] However, Bong opines that although “the acting format [in Parasite] is that of an ensemble, where almost ten main characters work with each other in even balance…when we look back on the film’s climax sequence, it’s Song Kang-ho who’s bearing the core sentiment of the film as well as its riskiest moments, the most daring parts.”[31] Also noteworthy is Bong’s distinctive mise-en-scene style of ensemble blocking, staging and use of lighting in the framing of certain interrogation sequences in Memories of Murder with Song compositionally centred and foregrounded that are replicated in The Host and Parasite.

Memories of Murder 

The Host


Body movement, “animal instinct” and deadpan face

Bong’s fondness for dynamic movement captured in long takes, the chase motif, and his predilection for the downwards trajectory of objects and people find perfect onscreen translation and representation through the physicality and energy of Song’s performances. An excellent textual example is the hilarious, acrobatic flying kick in an introductory sequence of Memories of Murder described by Tilda Swinton as a “running ninja kick moment off the side of a road, down a ditch and into the chest of an antagonist” that “manages to be both startlingly violent, awesomely athletic and somehow super droll all in one – a combination of inspired mess and precision.”[32]

Memories of Murder

Another textual example is the actor’s slow-motion lateral movement captured in long-take on the approach of the monster in The Host. A superlative representation of controlled chaos, this movement is repeated in later scenes in the film, as well as in Memories of Murder – evidence of Bong’s meticulous preparation of mayhem as can be seen in his highly detailed storyboards.



The Host

Memories of Murder

Memories of Murder

Physical dexterity required for comedic effect is demonstrable in Parasite’s famous coffee-table scene, in which Song has to gradually drag his flattened body on the wooden floor in fits and starts as inconspicuously as possible to exit the darkened living room of his employer. What is evident is the sheer physicality of an upstairs-downstairs “staircase film”, with a vertical formal structure that was strongly influenced by the two-storey house in Kim Ki-young’s classic 1960 gothic horror-melodrama Hanyeo (The Housemaid). Song jokes in interviews that henceforth he will avoid all films with stairs, rain and water, underscoring the arduous physical nature of the shoots on the constructed water tank set. According to Bong, when looking at these scenes we “can feel how much Song Kang-ho’s explosive energy contributes to a long-take shot. He plays the role of filling the empty spots in between the chaos. What makes him so special is his impressive animal instinct and a broad vision that interprets the whole film – these two always function simultaneously in him.”[33]

Another key performative aspect is Song’s face-acting, especially effective when playing befuddled characters and buffoons. In The Host, when Song sees the amphibious monster hanging from the bridge, he has a blank, clueless look on his face as he proceeds to throw a can into the Han river; this same unintelligent, deadpan look spots the monster heading towards him. In Snowpiercer the first scene featuring Song’s character Namgoon, the security expert of the polar express, there is yet again the characteristic Song dean-pan, blank, uncomprehending look on his face when the others try to ascertain his identity, general confusion that is exacerbated by the language barrier. Arguably the most memorable instance is the iconic freeze-frame that concludes Memories of Murder when Song stares directly into the camera, registering all the pent-up agony of not knowing the serial killer’s identity, and breaks the fourth wall as if suggesting that the murderer could be in the audience. In Bong’s words, “With the ending, I wanted the murderer to lock eyes with the detective. I remember thinking ‘Maybe the serial killer might one day come to a theatre, and sit there watching the film about himself and what he did many years ago.’ It made me extremely uncomfortable imagining that.”[34]

Memories of Murder

The Auteur’s and Actor’s Mutual Penchant for the Comedic

A mutual proclivity for dark humour engenders a creative and tonal compatibility between auteur and actor. A savage satirist of contemporary Korean society and its many fault lines, Bong’s sense of humour, wit and affable nature are quite apparent from his interviews; his jokiness, chuckles, shining eyes as he teases, mocks, takes digs at his long-time collaborator. Song in turn is appreciative that Bong always maintains his sense of humour, and has kept things light on set consistently over the last twenty years.[35]

Song’s early comedic performances included minor roles in the box-office hit japok (gangster) comedy No. 3 (1997), followed by Kim Jee-woon’s 1998 feature debut, a memorable horror comedy, Joyonghan jagok (The Quiet Family), where he plays opposite a young Choi Min-sik of Old Boy fame; and notably, in Lee Chang-dong’s debut feature, the japok noir Chorok mulgogi (Green Fish, 1997) in which his performance was considered so realistic by audiences that he was mistaken for a real-life gangster. Incidentally, it was Bong’s first experience of seeing Song onscreen that piqued his interest to such an extent that he, then first Assistant Director, met Song under the false pretences of a fake audition. A few months later Song would become a huge star with the gangster comedy No. 3.[36]

Vulgarity, violence and a sense of humour (key facets of a Song performance) are evident in The Foul King, a 2000 film in which he plays his first major role as an amateur wrestler, a hilarious, larger-than-life character. The role was considered a turning point in his burgeoning career, and one that holds a special place in his heart. Memories of Murder, capturing the chaos of the turbulent 1980s, was the first time that Bong worked with Song. From the very beginning Bong knew that Song was the only actor who could play that role so he wrote the script with him in mind. According to him, Song was the only person who could “represent the face of ‘80s Korea, and also he possessed this animal instinct for comedy so he is an actor who had it all.”[37] Park Chan-wook, while directing Song in Joint Security Area, similarly noted that the “exquisite sense of humor” Song brought to the North Korean character ensured that the film “avoid[ed] feeling too sentimentally nationalistic, or overly didactic.”[38]

Bong’s penchant for the comedic is evident throughout his oeuvre, from his first feature in 2000, the dark satire Peullandaseu-ui Gae (Barking Dogs Never Bite), his “most personal film”,[39] involving a cynical academic, barking dogs and intrigues in an apartment basement, to the numerous laugh-out moments involving physical comedy in Parasite. From its opening sequence of the Kim siblings desperately searching for wi-fi, humour, derived from a situation universally appealing and immediately relatable, is introduced. As Bong comments in a Q&A session at the British Film Institute (whilst trying to explain the unprecedented global response to his film), “people just open their hearts because searching for wi-fi is universal.”[40]

Peter Paik observes with regards to The Host that “Bong’s vision as a filmmaker is essentially earthy and comical [and] shows a proclivity toward physical humor, such as when a government official encased in a yellow hazmat suit suddenly slips and falls on the wooden floor of the gym before he orders the evacuees into quarantine. Scenes of characters consuming food highlight the messy, corporeal aspects of the process of taking nourishment.”[41] Another instance is references to farts in The Host, underscoring vulgar, coarse humour of the working-class, a recurring feature reminiscent of the dirty jokes in Memories of Murder which were inspired by the colourful speech of petty criminals whom Bong spent time with when jailed for a month at Yeongdeungpo detention centre for violating a law on assembly during a Korean Teacher’s Union demonstration in 1990. As Bong points out:

the line in Memories of Murder, where Detective Jo Yong-gu asks Park Du-man if the male and female university students who go to membership training (a form of university orientation) all sleep together in one room and have sex indiscriminately, that was something I actually heard from one of the petty criminals there with me when I was in the detention center. The images of the people I met in my university days, doing agricultural work or at the detention center, are the characters who have appeared in my films so far.[42]

Thus, for him the Scorsese quotation that “the personal is the most creative”,[43] which he cited on stage to rapturous applause when receiving the Academy Award for Best Director resonates through his filmmaking process, and is a testament to his deep cinephilia, characteristic of master auteurs. And yet for Bong, the personal is also the political. Contentious motifs with provocative political subtexts invoking the institutional violence of the military dictatorship in 1980s are a recurring preoccupation in the Bong oeuvre. Stirred by political activism in his university days, he had participated in anti-government, pro-democracy uprisings of June 1987 and 1990 which find memorable representation in Memories of Murder and The Host.

As the bumbling small-town detective, Song’s performative repertoire includes physical comedy during numerous fight, torture and chase sequences; uncouth mannerisms and vulgar, sloppy gestures when he is eating, slapping murder suspects, re-enacting murder scenes, singing karaoke, and referring to the victims. His mouth is often slightly open in a manner reminiscent of an imbecile. Expletive-ridden coarse speech is delivered in a natural, unaffected manner whilst the voice is modulated (such as when he says “nice, good idea” in English in response to a suggestion from a female colleague) in a funny, mocking tone. A typical Song moment is when (after a man wearing red panties is apprehended from an industrial site) he gulps water from a flask in an ungainly manner whilst half-tilting his head to cast a smug, cheeky look at his fellow detective as if to suggest that he has found the serial killer (see image below). Swinton, describing Song as a master, observes how “he has a kind of sardonic capacity to offer up what he is doing with a wry, anarchistic delight; and at the same time, he has this lyricism that makes us want to be on his side, however dastardly or crackers his portrayal might be.”[44]

Memories of Murder

Complementary Modus Operandi

The detailed visualisations manifested in Bong’s storyboards, a fundamental aspect of his style which he closely follows, are mainly for production designers, directors of photography, gaffers – the technical crew he controls quite fastidiously. However, within the stage that is created through such meticulous control he wants his actors to feel as comfortable as possible, as fresh as fish out of the water, free to flap around whenever they want to. This is possible because he has already gathered a group of actors who have great expressive powers and he has complete faith in his actors. He believes that his method of direction (which includes not shooting any coverage) allows actors the freedom to improvise, and to that end he tries to talk as little as possible on set to avoid interfering with the actor’s process.[45] And the most exciting moment as a director is when actors show him something he never anticipated.

Indeed, there is a mutual love for improvisation and few rehearsals between actor and auteur. In Bong’s words, “We’re the type to just go with it and begin rolling the cameras right away.”[46] Song says that they do not have deep discussions before shooting, implying that they share a good understanding. The master auteur prefers to capture the raw emotions, the unprocessed ones likening it to when one just opens a can of coke or pulls a fish fresh out of water. For him, the rawness, the vitality diminishes with many rehearsals.[47]

As Nam Lee observes, “Song is known for improvisation and for his ability to really immerse [himself] in the character he portrays naturally.” The actor makes the elaborate lines sound “improvised and alive, as if every moment is a documentary. He then turns it around and makes his improvised words sound like the pre-written lines by the director – they fit in with the flow of the whole drama.”[48] Elsewhere, Bong notes how “even if a scene involves difficult dialogue or highly technical camerawork, [Song] will find a way to make it seamless and spontaneous.”[49]  Bong is constantly amazed that even when Song “improvises on set it only strengthens the scene and the overall context of the film and never sticks out. So it feels like he has been practicing his lines for a year. And even with dialogue that was written a long time ago, he makes it feel raw and alive and vital. So he always manages to blur the lines between improvisation and preparation.”[50]

This extraordinary creative collaboration between master auteur and star-actor is defined by mutual respect, trust, indebtedness; bonhomie and compatibility of temperaments and of personalities. To quote Song: “We each made our start around the same time. […] And as actor and director, we’ve traveled a very long, interesting, turbulent journey together – I think of our relationship as that of close friends and comrades.”[51] In this article I have offered an examination of the artistic synergy between filmmaker and actor, each at the height of his individual talent and recognition, in order to understand a unique working relationship, spanning two decades, one that has significantly contributed to the complex craft of filmmaking. Furthermore, as Song Kang-ho is Bong Joon-ho’s muse, I also dissected the various facets of an actor’s performance – his verbal and physical dexterity and face acting, and popular persona as an everyman and conflicted father – as well as the mutual proclivities and complementary modus operandi and personalities of auteur and actor that consistently engender cinematic masterpieces.


[1]. SBIFF 2020, “Bong Joon-ho discusses Parasite”, January 24, 2020.
[2]. Lee Gyu-lee, “Song Kang-ho, Kim Min-hee named in NYT’s ‘Greatest Actors of the 21st Century’”, Korea Times, November 26, 2020.
[3]. Jung Ji-youn, Korean Film Directors: Bong Joon-ho (Seoul: Korean Film Council, 2008), p. 9.
[4]. Yet in 1986 when the Motion Picture Law (MPL) was amended to grant direct distribution to Hollywood majors (20th Century Fox in 1988, Warner Bros. Pictures in 1989, Columbia in 1990, and Disney in 1993), allowing them to set up offices within Korea, thus shaking up the Chungmuro (Korea’s film district located in the capital city of Seoul), the industry found itself struggling for survival. The resultant industrial restructuring and modernisation that was embarked upon as a result of globalisation and domestic competition from Hollywood majors saved them from being decimated.
[5]. Christina Klein, “Why American Studies Needs to Think about Korean Cinema, or, Transnational Genres in the Films of Bong Joon-ho”, American Quarterly 60 (December 2008), p. 872.
[6]. Tweet by Darcy Paquet,  February 10, 2020, 10:44am,
[7]. Patrick Brzeski, “How Parasite Actor Song-Kang-ho Became South Korea’s Everyman Superstar”, Hollywood Reporter, September 8, 2019.
[8]. Hammer Museum, “Bong Joon-ho and Song Kang-ho Discuss the film Parasite”, December 5, 2019.
[9]. Brzeski, “How Parasite Actor Song-Kang-ho Became South Korea’s Everyman Superstar”.
[10]. Ibid.
[11]. Nam Lee, private email, July 22, 2020.
[12]. Film at Lincoln Centre. “Bong Joon-ho and Song Kang-ho on the Phenomenon of Parasite” January 2, 2020.
[13]. Ibid.
[14]. Ibid.
[15]. Brzeski, “How Parasite Actor Song-Kang-ho Became South Korea’s Everyman Superstar”.
[16]. Darcy Paquet, private email, July 8, 2020.
[17]. Lee Gyu-lee, “Song Kang-ho, Kim Min-hee named in NYT’s ‘Greatest Actors of the 21st Century’”.
[18]. Darcy Paquet, private email, July 8, 2020.
[19]. Nam Lee, private email, July 22, 2020.
[20]. Brzeski, “How Parasite Actor Song-Kang-ho Became South Korea’s Everyman Superstar”.
[21]. Ibid.
[22]. Ibid.
[23]. Ibid.
[24]. Ibid.
[25]. BFI Southbank, “Parasite Director Bong Joon-ho, Song Kang-ho and Lee Jung-eun”, May 27, 2020.
[26]. Lee, “Song Kang-ho, Kim Min-hee named in NYT’s ‘Greatest Actors of the 21st Century’”.
[27]. BFI Southbank, “Parasite Director Bong Joon-ho, Song Kang-ho and Lee Jung-eun”.
[28]. Hammer Museum, “Bong Joon-ho and Song Kang-ho Discuss the film Parasite”.
[29]. Landmark Theatre, “Bong Joon-ho, Song Kang-ho and Park So-dam Q&A” with Pete Hammond, October 20, 2019.
[30]. Hammer Museum, “Bong Joon-ho and Song Kang-ho Discuss the film Parasite”.
[31]. Brzeski, “How Parasite Actor Song-Kang-ho Became South Korea’s Everyman Superstar”.
[32]. Ibid.
[33]. Ibid.
[34]. James Bell and Bong Joon-ho, “Endings… Memories of Murder”, Sight and Sound 30:3 (March 2020), p. 96.
[35]. Film at Lincoln Centre. “Bong Joon-ho and Song Kang-ho on the Phenomenon of Parasite”.
[36]. BFI Southbank, “Parasite Director Bong Joon-ho, Song Kang-ho and Lee Jung-eun”.
[37]. SBIFF 2020, “Bong Joon-ho discusses Parasite”.
[38]. Brzeski, “How Parasite Actor Song-Kang-ho Became South Korea’s Everyman Superstar”.
[39]. Tony Rayns, “A Class Act.” Sight and Sound 30:3 (March 2020), p. 31.
[40]. BFI Southbank, “Parasite Director Bong Joon-ho, Song Kang-ho and Lee Jung-eun”.
[41]. Peter Y. Paik, “The Host (2006): Life in Excess”, in Sangjoon Lee (ed.), Rediscovering Korean Cinema (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2019) pg. 430.
[42]. Jung, Korean Film Directors: Bong Joon-ho, p. 9.
[43]. Gautam Sundar, “‘Parasite’ director Bong Joon-ho quotes Martin Scorsese in acceptance speech at Oscars”, The Hindu, February 10, 2020.
[44]. Brzeski, “How Parasite Actor Song-Kang-ho Became South Korea’s Everyman Superstar”.
[45]. SBIFF 2020, “Bong Joon-ho discusses Parasite”.
[46]. Hammer Museum, “Bong Joon-ho and Song Kang-ho Discuss the film Parasite”.
[47]. Ibid.
[48]. Brzeski, “How Parasite Actor Song-Kang-ho Became South Korea’s Everyman Superstar”.
[49]. Lee, “Song Kang-ho, Kim Min-hee named in NYT’s ‘Greatest Actors of the 21st Century’”.
[50]. Landmark Theatre, “Bong Joon-ho, Song Kang-ho and Park So-dam Q&A”.
[51]. Brzeski, “How Parasite Actor Song-Kang-ho Became South Korea’s Everyman Superstar”.

About The Author

Nandana Bose has a Ph.D degree in Film Studies from University of Nottingham, U.K., is the author of the British Film Institute monograph Madhuri Dixit (Bloomsbury, 2019), and is a former Associate Professor at the Department of Film Studies, University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she taught a course on New Korean Cinema.

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