Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat. Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune.
Bong Joon-ho and Song Kang-ho.
Some director-actor partnerships bring out the best in both parties, propelling them to artistic heights previously unimagined. Yet while some enjoy their well-deserved time in the spotlight, others sadly continue to operate in relative obscurity. I sincerely hope the fourth pair mentioned, Joon-ho and Kang-ho, achieve the worldwide celebrity they deserve in the near future.
If they don’t, it’s to our detriment as an audience.
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Most international film fans are already familiar with the South Korean duo: They’ve worked together on Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006), and are currently collaborating on an English-language Joon-ho-directed post-apocalyptic ensemble piece called Snowpiercer.
A group of promotional passport photos were recently released introducing the upcoming film’s nine primary characters, which include the likes of Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, and John Hurt. However, trust me when I say this: no disrespect to the aforementioned, all fine and celebrated actors, but Kang-ho is by far the most exciting addition to the cast.
His dourly charismatic physical presence and disarming comedic talent lend a levity, empathy, and profound humanity to his dramatic roles that few American actors can match. He was never formally trained, yet he maintains one of the most instantly recognizable and all-around enjoyable screen presences in all contemporary cinema. Personally, I can’t remember so quickly and easily pegging someone as a bona fide star.
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Kang-ho has appeared in over 20 films (all South Korean), but one of his defining roles came with Bong Joon-ho’s brilliant crime drama Memories of Murder. The actor plays Detective Park, lead investigator in the true crime cases that later became known as the first serial killings in Korean history, occurring between 1986 and 1991. The film can perhaps be equated to a South Korean Fargo, an engaging and suspenseful police procedural that nonetheless maintains a sharp sense of humor, drawing unexpected laughs from the relative ineptitude and archaic tactics of the investigators.
Joon-ho directs Memories with a measured pace and burgeoning sense of foreboding that makes the humor even more unexpectedly effective. Here he finds his ideal extension in Kang-ho, an artistic doppelganger that truly brings his on-screen ideas to vivid life.
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The Host came three years later in 2006, an internationally popular popcorn flick that tells the Gojira-esque tale of a mutant monster preying on the populace. The film itself is of lesser quality, but Kang-ho’s hysterical performance as a borderline-narcoleptic who must rescue his daughter, in conjunction with Joon-ho’s skillful direction, make it a resounding success and all-around thrilling revival of the monster movie genre.
Both men have done high quality work apart, but as with De Niro and Scorsese, I believe their productions as a unit will eventually define their careers. If you haven’t had a chance to see the aforementioned films, do yourself a favor and check them out as soon as you can. In doing so, you’ll understand why any future cinematic partnership between them is worthy of celebration: We may very well be witnessing film history in the making.