Mr. Kang-ho Song, a career award is always an opportunity to look back over the milestones of your career. Starting from the beginning. When did you first feel the spark of inspiration to become an actor, on stage at first and then – in 1996 – on screen?
First of all, it’s a great honor to receive the Excellence Award from the time-honored Locarno Film Festival. I couldn’t be happier to be the first Asian actor to receive it. I dreamed of becoming an actor when I was a middle school student. I first appeared on stage at university. I wanted to be a good actor, rather than a movie star. So I did stage productions for about seven or eight years. I have been constantly working for twenty-four years since I had a chance to make my film debut in 1996.
After your debut with Hong Sang-soo, you’ve become a favorite performer for great directors throughout your career. One of those big names surely holds a special place – Bong Joon-ho, who recently won the Palme D’Or at Cannes. How did the two of you come to meet, and in what way has your friendship developed over the years?
I was impressed by Bong Joon-ho’s debut film Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000). Bong said he was also impressed by my performance in Green Fish (1997), directed by Lee Chang-dong. We admired each other’s work and finally met through Memories of Murder (2003) in 2000. We’ve been comrades for twenty years now.
Another fundamental encounter was with Chan-wook Park. After working with him on Joint Security Area (2000), it was foremost Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) that brought you global recognition. What do you remember about that movie?
When Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was released it was a very unconventional and challenging film. Considering it’s a commercial movie, I was afraid how the audience could relate to it. It was a pity that the film didn’t connect to the audience, and yet it was a meaningful piece which marks the appearance of the artist Park Chan-wook. I think it had a decisive effect on the Korean film industry. Other people started to think, ‘we can make that kind of movie, we can a film like that’. From my point of view, after Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, people made an attempt to make more daring and challenging films.
While you’ve played a great variety of roles, one thing that stays in the mind about your performances is your ability to convey the underlying violent streak in the stories and in the human relationships they portray. Are you drawn to such roles?
Not really. I don’t choose a film because of the character or the role. When I act, the most important thing is the audience shouldn’t feel that they’re strangers to the character. The character can be very unique and alien, but when you perform it shouldn’t be the one from another world. I believe you should perform in a way that the audience can relate to the character themselves. I want people to think, ‘I can be that character’. I’ve been always trying to do so.
Your filmography is highly prolific. What are the indispensable criteria for you to accept a role?
It’s important how the role commits to the film. It doesn’t matter if the role is big or small. But I check how the role contributes to the film and whether it helps the film to be a great work of art. And I should communicate with the character. I shouldn’t think, ‘I don’t know why this role is needed in the movie’. Appropriateness is important for me.
Your star profile has brought fame and fortune in the West for South Korean cinema. How do you see the current state of film production in your country?
I think Korean cinema has been having a renaissance during the 1990s. It has developed both quality and quantity-wise (there were not always good things however). Korean cinema has been mould-breaking and progressing in terms of diversity and quality. It’s becoming mature.
After so many films – and so many awards – is there still a challenge that you feel is missing from your CV?
I’m always grateful to receive awards but that’s not my ultimate goal. I’m doing my best to be an actor who can always wow and surprise the audience with new characters and movies.