If you’re a Korean movie fan, chances are you’ve probably watched one—or several—films starring Song Kang-ho. Song not only is one of South Korea’s most prolific actors, but also reliably stars in many of Korea’s most renowned movies.
Unlike many other male Korean celebrities, Song Kang-ho isn’t known for youthful looks or a chiseled jawline. Rather, Song’s usually celebrated for the quality of his acting. From North Korean soldier, to human rights lawyer, to vampire — Song brilliantly morphs into a variety of diverse characters, yet always retains a hint of his classic gruff charm.
Surprisingly, Song Kang-ho never received formal training as an actor. After finishing high school, Song applied for performing arts colleges, but received rejections from every single one. Instead, he began performing with social theater groups during the early 1990s.
Song made his film debut in 1996 with a minor role in The Day a Pig Fell into the Well, which was also renowned Korean art house auteur Hong Sang-soo’s directorial debut. Over the next few years, Song gradually gained prominence through performances in movies like 1997’s gangster flick No. 3. By the early 2000s, Song began working with famous Korean directors Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho. This cemented Song’s reputation for only working on Korea’s best film projects.
Now, Cinema Escapist looks back at Song’s decades-long career to highlight his ten best films, listed in order of increasing quality. Whether action, comedy, or drama—this list of the ten best Song Kang-ho movies truly reflects the diversity and depth of one of Korea’s foremost acting luminaries.
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Year: 2013| Genres: Science Fiction, Action | Director: Bong Joon-ho
We kick off this list with the most prominent non-Korean movie that Song Kang-ho starred in: 2013’s cult hit Snowpiercer. Though most of Snowpiercer‘s dialog is in English, and Western marketing highlighted how it features Chris Evans (a.k.a. Captain America) and Tilda Swinton, the film is actually a rather international production.
As movie buffs may tell you, famed Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho directed Snowpiercer—and brought along one of his regular collaborators: Song Kang-ho.
In Snowpiercer, Song plays a security specialist called Namgoong Minsu, a name Bong apparently chose because foreigners would have trouble pronouncing it. While Namgoong is a supporting character, he plays a key role in allowing Snowpiercer‘s protagonist (Chris Evans) to launch a revolution aboard the post-apocalyptic train the film takes place on. Song expresses a rough aloofness that imbues Namgoong with an aura of mystery, making Snowpiercer all the more interesting in the process.
9. The President’s Barber
Year: 2004| Genres: Historical, Comedy, Drama | Director: Im Chan-sang
Imagine a more low-key Forrest Gump, set around a Korean barbershop. That roughly describes The President’s Barber, which chronicles several decades of Korean history through the eyes of a simple Korean barber named Seong Han-mo, who’s played by Song Kang-ho.
Song convincingly depicts Seong as a simple everyman who’s disinterested in politics. However, because Seong runs a barbershop near the Blue House (Korea’s presidential palace), he’s involuntarily recruited as the barber for military strongman Park Chung-hee. This gives Seong a unique, inside look at Korea’s rotten politics.
Thanks to Song Kang-ho’s acting skills, The President’s Barber becomes a powerful yet subtle critique of Korea’s Cold War era military dictatorship. Barber Seong doesn’t speak much—but he radiates a purity and innocence that contrasts heavily with the callous politicians around him, allowing audiences to viscerally taste the darkness of the Park Chung-hee regime.
Year: 2009| Genres: Horror, Thriller, Romance | Director: Park Chan-wook
Vampires don’t just live in Transylvania—they’re in Korea too, at least in 2009’s Thirst. Directed by Park Chan-wook (famous in the West for Oldboy), Thirst places Song Kang-ho front and center as a priest who turns into a vampire after an unsuccessful medical experiment.
Thirst offers what might be Song Kang-ho’s creepiest performance, and is a must watch if you’re into horror films. Song portrays a rather complex vampire. While he lusts for both women and blood, he still seems to have some mental and moral restraints. The fact he’s a priest further complicates the situation, and ramps up the creep factor.
7. The Attorney
Year: 2013| Genres: Historical, Courtroom Drama | Director: Yang Woo-suk
Truth, Justice, and the Korean Way — no, it’s not Superman, it’s The Attorney: a courtroom drama starring Song Kang-ho as its lead. This isn’t just some sensational kangaroo court though. The Attorney dramatizes one of the most important legal cases on South Korea’s long journey towards democracy.
In 1981, South Korea’s military government arrested 22 democracy activists on fabricated charges that they were North Korean sympathizers. A star legal team—included two future Korean Presidents, Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in—assembled to defend the detainees against government misconduct.
Song Kang-ho’s character is a composite of Roh Moo-hyun and other defense team members in this case; let’s just say second-rate actors don’t get to channel Korean presidents. In The Attorney, Song’s character transforms from a hedonistic money-grubber to an advocate for justice, a change that’s both entertaining and heartwarming.
If you want to learn more about The Attorney, check out our full-length review here.
6. A Taxi Driver
Year: 2017 | Genres: Historical, Drama | Director: Jang Hoon
In May 1980, citizens of the southwestern city of Gwangju rose up against South Korea’s military government. In response, military strongman Chun Doo-hwan sent troops to crush their demonstrations, killing hundreds of civilians in the result. Despite a media blackout, the outside world learned about this massacre: thanks to the courage of a Korean taxi driver named Kim Sa-bok.
Song Kang-ho plays taxi driver Kim in yet another historically significant role. Similar to his character in The Attorney, Song traces Kim Sa-bok’s transformation from someone just trying to make lots of money to a courageous advocate for human dignity and Korean democracy. What makes A Taxi Driver slightly stronger than The Attorney is how Song establishes a great dynamic with German actor Thomas Kretschmann, who plays the German reporter who hires his taxi.
A Taxi Driver is a stirring, historically important movie. If you’re interested in learning more, you can read this article about how it inspired one of Cinema Escapist‘s writers to rediscover his family’s experiences in the Gwangju Massacre.
5. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
Year: 2002 | Genres: Revenge, Action, Thriller | Director: Park Chan-wook
If you know about and enjoyed Oldboy, then you should check out Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance — another member of Korean director Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy”. Song Kang-ho plays the titular Mr. Vengeance, an executive named Park Dong-jin whose daughter gets kidnapped by a group of anarchists.
Much like the protagonist of Oldboy, Park embarks on a journey of brutal revenge when his daughter’s kidnapping goes awry. While Oldboy‘s renowned for its ambitious fight scenes, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance leans on more blunted forms of violence to advance its plot. This means Song’s character isn’t only a brooding tough guy who did a lot of pushups while imprisoned in a hotel room. Rather, he’s more visibly stricken with personal grief, and willing to sacrifice his own humanity to enact vengeance.—a much harder and more complex role to play.
4. The Good, The Bad, the Weird
Year: 2008 | Genres: Western, Action | Director: Kim Jee-woon
Americans have Westerns, Italians have Spaghetti Westerns, and Koreans have… Kimchi Westerns? That’s how some critics have described The Good, the Bad, the Weird. This Korean Western that might not be set in the American West, but it contains plenty of swashbuckling fun.
The film’s title comes from its three characters, who are known respectively as “The Good”, “The Bad”, and “The Weird” in correspondence with their personalities. Song Kang-ho stars as “The Weird”, a thief who steals a treasure map that the other two characters, not to mention the Imperial Japanese Army, are looking for.
This is a really, really fun movie… and that’s due in large part to Song Kang-ho’s performance. His character really does deserve his name. Whether through subtle idiosyncrasies or amusing chase scenes, “The Weird” truly sets the film’s rollicking pace and playful tone. The Good, the Bad, the Weird is one of the most entertaining Korean movies ever.
3. Joint Security Area
Year: 2000 | Genres: Military, Drama | Director: Park Chan-wook
Song Kang-ho’s collaboration with famed Oldboy director Park Chan-wook began with Joint Security Area, one of the most renowned movies that depict North-South Korean relations.
In this 2000 murder mystery, Song plays a North Korean soldier who, along with a junior comrade, strike up an unlikely friendship with two South Korean soldiers. Song’s imparts some of his classic gruffness to this role, making the North-South friendship seem even more precious yet fragile at the same time.
Song wasn’t just conveying his character’s emotions in Joint Security Area though. By proxy, and due to the film’s unique plot, his role embodied the complex and highly charged feelings that Koreans have towards their half-century of national separation. For this reason, Joint Security Area represents one of Song Kang-ho’s most powerful performances, and perhaps more than any other movie solidified him as an A-list actor.
2. The Host
Year: 2006 | Genres: Monster, Action | Director: Bong Joon-ho
The Host is South Korea’s Godzilla (fun fact: there’s also a North Korean Godzilla), and Song Kang-ho plays the movie’s unlikely hero.
Song’s character is a man named Park Gang-du. Afflicted with some developmental disability, he helps his family run a snack stand and raises a young daughter named Hyun-seo. One day, a monster emerges from Seoul’s Han River, terrorizing the city and kidnapping Hyun-seo in the process.
Despite his slow-wittedness, Park resolves to battle against both the monster and uncaring authorities to rescue his daughter. Song Kang-ho’s superb portrayal of Park make this battle one of the most entertaining narratives to ever hit Korean cinema. In fact, Song’s performance embodies a sense of pain that’s core to South Korea’s national character, something that makes The Host a movie anyone who cares about Korea should watch.
1. Memories of Murder
Year: 2003 | Genres: Crime, Drama | Director: Bong Joon-ho
Topping off our list of Song Kang-ho’s best performances is Memories of Murder, his debut collaboration with director Bong Joon-ho. This 2003 crime drama put both Bong and Song on the international cinema map. Critics continue to praise its storytelling and cinematography to this day.
In Memories, Song plays a small town detective named Park Doo-man who’s investigating a serial rapist and murderer. This role perhaps cultivated many of the skills Song would go on to deploy in his future films. Park is a simple, unrefined man who resorts to brutality in his police work—character elements you see (though not necessarily together) in Song’s other roles. As Park gets deeper into the case, he starts seeing his own brutality alongside that of the murderer. This compels him to reassess the kind of person he wants to be.
Darkly comedic, sharp, and beautifully brooding, Memories of Murders offers a complex narrative that necessitates nuanced acting. It’s a natural choice for our #1 film starring Song Kang-ho.
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