Song Kang-ho is perhaps Korea’s most relatable actor. Whether he’s playing a studious monarch in The King’s Letters, investigating crime in Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, or embodying the down-on-his-luck Kim Kae-taek in Bong’s latest film Parasite, Song demonstrates an unusual talent for emotionally connecting with viewers. That ability has earned him dozens of prestigious awards, including most recently being the first Asian actor to receive an Excellence Award at 72nd Locarno International Film Festival.
Parasite, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, and is South Korea’s entry for Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards, has been described as an ensemble film, but Song is mesmerizing as the patriarch of the Kim family, whose only scheme for success may be to con the rich but naive Park family. It’s the fourth time Song has acted in a film directed by Bong.
“There’s a lot of good chemistry between Director Bong and I,” said Song, while visiting New York City for the 57th New York International Film Festival.
In Bong’s 2006 ecological horror film The Host, Song plays a man whose daughter is kidnapped by a monster. In Bong’s sci-fi futuristic film Snowpiercer, Song plays a poor man relegated to the rear of the super train that is humanity’s only hope. The actor and director enjoy working together.
“I think the message he wants to convey in his films is very moving and also at the same he elicits performances that are very extraordinary,” said Song. “I think that combination is what makes him remarkable.”
While Bong’s films are known for embodying social issues, such as protecting the environment, promoting animal rights, or making society more equitable, Song says he does not choose his roles based on their social messages.
“I personally don’t like propaganda films,” he said. “Art has to be good for its own sake even when reflecting reality. All of Bong’s films have a strong sense of story to them and that’s what makes them so real and so beautiful.”
In Parasite his character may be poor and lacking opportunities, but he still has his dignity.
“When you look at the character I play, I don’t think he is a very unusual character,” said Song. “There’s nothing odd about him. He’s an ordinary character that can exist anywhere. The character is poor, but he tries very hard, and yet his desires are not fulfilled. It’s easy to identify with him.”
Although Kim Ki-taek calmly makes the most of his limited circumstances, he’s eventually driven to a violent act, which might cause viewers to wonder what circumstances would justify such a response. The film does not answer the question for viewers, but for Kim Ki-taek, that uncrossable line is an affront to his dignity as a human being.
“The final answer lies in everyone’s hearts,” said Song. “I do think that it’s a film about human dignity and certain lines are crossed that infringe upon that dignity. There’s a certain resistance that lies in this character, a point of resistance that lies in everyone.”
Despite the recognition he’s earned as an actor and his friendship with fellow creatives, Song considers acting a lonely profession.
“It’s not just me,” said Song.”I think this also applies to Hollywood actors and actresses. When you stand in front of the camera, it’s a very, very lonely moment. There is no one to help you out. Everybody can only stand by to watch, so that’s what makes it challenging and painful as well.”
Working in theater helped the critically acclaimed actor to cultivate his acting skills.
“I did not have my acting skills trained in a professional school but I always appeared on theatrical stages ever since I was young,” said Song. “That’s how I gradually trained in my acting capacity. It wasn’t a long training but it was very intense.”
Starring in a film that’s up for an Academy Award has not convinced the veteran actor that he wants to move to Hollywood.
“I would like to pass on that opportunity to other actors,” said Song. “I think in such films I would disappear, so I will instead continue to use Korean films such as Parasite to express myself.”
Song’s next film, Emergency Declaration, also features Lee Byung-hun, who appears in several Hollywood productions, including Red2 and Terminator: Genysis. The actors previously worked together in Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area and Kim Jee-woon’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird.
“It’s a very commercial film of the disaster genre,” said Song.
Song’s Emergency Declaration character will have to deal with an aviation disaster. It may be a different genre, but Song will do his best to make that character oh-so-easy to relate to.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
This story was originally published on forbes.com