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Song Kang Ho - The Choco Pie Guy

Written by Russell Edwards Tell a Friend

If he is lucky, an actor might get such a scene once in a lifetime.

A North Korean guard of the 38th parallel is being visited (such is the central conceit of the film) by two South Korean guards. They are buddies by now, having shared many secrets and laughs. On this visit, the senior, chubby-faced guard with a knife scar under one eye is given a South Korean confection, a Choco Pie. Like a guilty child, the North Korean stuffs the chocolate disc into his mouth. One of his visitors suggests that if he defected to the south, he could eat Choco Pies until he burst.

Defection. It's been a subject that their joyful, clandestine, friendship has successfully avoided... until now. The North Korean, cheeks puffed out by their contents, offers a galled look to his chocolate benefactor, before spitting the chewed gift into his own palm.

Sternly he says to the visiting soldier: "I'm only going to say this once, so listen well. My dream is that one day our republic makes the best damn sweets on the peninsula. Got it?"

A long pause as the camera rests on the shocked expression of the South Korean guard, then the North Korean looks down at the masticated Choco Pie in his hand. "Until then," the North Korean continues," all I can do is dream about these Choco Pies."

And after a moment's reflection, the offended but dignified soldier shovels the chewed confectionery back into his mouth.

The film, well-known to fans of modern Korean cinema, is JSA (or Joint Security Area). The actor is Song Kang Ho and it is the golden, star-making moment in a career of distinction. Once you've been told, it is obvious that Song Kang Ho never trained professionally as an actor. But that doesn't diminish his talent. Rather, theatrical schooling often interferes with the art of being natural on screen. Song's presence seems so raw in his early mid-90s films, like early Robert DeNiro, Song has that animalistic quality of an actor performing by sheer instinct.

Song's theatrical career first gathered momentum when he joined a troupe with an emphasis on improvisation. Given that such skills are usually honed rather than taught, I'm willing to assume that Song was already a powerful performer when he signed up. His film acting debut came in Hong Sang Soo's The Day a Pig Fell into the Well. The film is constructed in four overlapping parts and in the first quadrant, Song plays a rather coarse colleague in a publishing company that employs one of the film's major characters. With his rough and tumble ways, Song creates a vivid first impression.

The chronology gets a bit hazy for the next three movies. Depending on who you want to believe it is No 3 or Green Fish. For the sake of argument, let us assume that it is, as some people claim, Jang Sun Woo's Timeless Bottomless Bad Movie. Despite requests from the audacious auteur for professional actors to appear in his three hour-plus film, most turned Jang down. The virtually unknown Song, possibly seeking an opportunity to work with Korea's then most internationally famous director, is in a single scene where a homeless man sings a religious tune. Song claps his hands in time to the music. Total running time? One minute tops!

In DeNiro terms, Song Neung Nan's No. 3 (1997) is Song's Mean Streets, and the actor gives an explosive performance as a knife toting gangster who trains a group of young criminal recruits with a bullying attitude and a belligerent stupidity. It resulted in a Best Actor award from the Korean film industry, and gave audiences a full serving of Song's malevolent side.

Arriving the same year as No. 3 was Green Fish, the directing debut of Lee Chang Dong, who would go on to direct Peppermint Candy and Oasis as well as to become the government minister for culture. Here, Song is the mustachioed owner of a strip club whose demeanour changes from moment to moment. One minute he's beating up the lead, then offering him a cigarette, then blowing smoke in his face. Loud Hawaiian shirts and a leering grin are the only constants in his performance. When he attacks he kicks like a dancer, graceful and deadly accurate.

Song widened his range to include black comedy in the gruesome laffer The Quiet Family. Song is the son of the family who in their incompetent efforts to run a hotel, end up becoming serial killers of unfortunate guests. While some of the characters are more sly than others, no single character in this film is particularly bright and Song is lovably dopey in this hilarious bloodbath.

In 1999, if there was any film a Korean actor would have wanted to be in, Shiri was it. Demoting James Cameron from King of the World to a runner-up, the espionage thriller beat Titanic's local box office record and became an international news story. Song was the secret agent partner of Han Suk Kyu and acquits himself well in this subsidiary role. There is a confidence in his acting that seems to be expressing itself for the first time.

But as important as Shiri is to Korean film's rebirth, the real breakthrough for Song was The Foul King in which he got to play the male lead for the first time. The Foul King is like the Shall We Dance? of wrestling flicks. Song is a put-upon salaryman who begins wrestling because his lambasting boss dishes out discipline in the form of a headlock. DVD slow-mo indicates Song did his own backflips and probably other stunts as well. But it's more than athletics that makes Song worth watching. His wrestling ferocity is frightening, but comedic sequences like the Las Vegas Elvis dream that has Song adorned in sideburns and a disco chest are memories hard to shake.

With the success of The Foul King under his belt, by the time Park Chan Wook's fabulous JSA hit Korean screens, Song was now a national celebrity. While both Shiri and JSA reflect the internal schism of the South Korean people, the role of Sgt. Oh in JSA is an embodiment of the other. The aforementioned Choco Pie scene is of course a favourite, but his Sgt. Oh's encounter with the Swiss-born investigator (Lee Young Ae) in which he brags about his scars and then comes across as bashful when she calls his bluff is also highly memorable. In brief, Song's performance is a high point in a film that absolutely brims with them.

Song was recruited by Park Chan Wook again for the dark Sympathy for Mr Vengeance. While JSA is an affirmation of the Korean spirit tinged with sadness and grief, the latter film is a confronting gaze into the face of evil that has an Old Testament-flavoured bloody finale. Riddled with jet black comedy, Vengeance is a film that is definitely not for everybody. The film essentially has two narrative threads, one which has Song playing a wealthy businessman whose daughter has been kidnapped, and the other featuring the kidnappers (played by Shin Ha Kyun and Bae Du Na), who have undertaken their ill-fated mission in order to finance a child's kidney transplant. Song is powerful as the enraged businessman, but also displays a vulnerability because his character is unprepared for the type of people who assail him.

After that intense experience, YMCA Baseball Team cannot help but be thought of as an anti-climax. A cute little period film about Korea's first baseball team, Song gives a serviceable turn but the local hit was never likely to cross over to non-Korean markets. Memories of Murder, however, heralded a return to form for Song. An intense depiction of a real-life murder investigation that occurred in 1980s rural Korea, Song plays a rough and tumble detective who is willing to jail the first person tailor-made to take the fall.

The opening shows Song arriving at a roadside farm where a woman's body has been discovered. The quality of the police work is instantly apparent and played for laughs as the yokels and incompetent patrolmen contaminate the crime scene and jeopardise the existence of evidence. The ability of Song to work both the comedic and dramatic sides of the street, stand him in good stead here and he acts as an anchor, preventing the film from tipping too far in one direction or the other.Memories of Murder is like a compelling modernisation of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil with a bloodless dash of Seven.

And that almost leads us to the present day. The President's Barber a Forrest Gump-like film made in 2004, marks Song's third period film in a row, this time set in the pre-democracy Korea of the 60s and 70s. Knowledge of Korean politics would help, but once you realise that Korea was home to repressive regimes, all the details you require are right in front of you. Song plays the titular role of Han Mo, an unsophisticated, but patriotic barber who has never asked too many questions. Because his barber shop is a mere hair toss away from the seat of government, Han Mo is drawn into the junta's inner circle and becomes the hairdresser laureate. At first he cuts hair with ignorant pride. Later the consequences of being closely allied with one (highly paranoid) political party becomes apparent. Unlike Gump, who remains apolitical, Han Mo is slowly radicalised by the environment thrust upon him, and appears to symbolise a Korean everyman who upon waking up to government corruption is ready for a more transparent system. Symbolic roles are difficult to convincingly carry off but Song meets the challenge of the required nuances admirably.

Published July 25, 2005

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