“They say geniuses die young, and since he also died young, I’ll call him a genius. But he died before displaying his genius. Shall I call him a genius in the making? It’s no concern of mine, but I heard for artists, death doesn’t exist.”
– Yun Bong-chun, “The Chronicles of Na Un-kyu,” Cinema & Theatre Vol. 1, November 1939, p.4
“At the time, Un-kyu graduated after 4 years of primary school and entered Boheung School for advanced education. That was the spring of the year Un-kyu turned sixteen. And that was when I first met him. We were of the same age and in the same class.”
“In his primary school days, Un-kyu loved the theatre. Back then, whenever traveling shinpa troupes like Im Seong-gu’s Dongjijwa came to town, you could find him sitting at one corner of the theatre every night. On Saturday and Sunday evenings, he would gather his friends at his house and put on a play.”
While he was attending Jiandao Myeongdong Middle School in 1919, he participated in the March 1st movement. This made him wanted by the police, and he drifted around Manchuria and Russia. In Russia, he enlisted in the White Army which he later deserted.
“What did I plan to do in Russia? I did not go there to ‘do’ anything. I could not return to Joseon even if I had wanted to, so I was forced to roam around Siberia like a circus bear until the point where I became desperate for rice and a warm room and enlisted in the Russian White Army”
- Na Un-kyu, ‘My Wanderings in Russia’, “Literature and Cinema” First Issue, March 1928, pp. 23-27.
“After he came back to Seoul, he attended Jungdong School and took the high school preparatory course. However, two police officers from Hoeryong came to Seoul soon afterwards and took him back to Hoeryong.”
“The reason why he came back to Seoul was because the new play troupe named Yerimhoe came to Hoeryong. He was employed by this company and stopped by Jiandao on the way to Seoul. Yerimhoe was broken up soon afterward, and he went back to school.”
“While studying in Seoul, he never missed going to the movie theater. When he watched films, he made diagrams of the events in his notebook. Of all the diagrams, I enjoyed the ones about the characters and the whereabouts of the broken coin from ‘The Broken Coin’ (1915).”
When the early Joseon films were testing the audiences by adapting Japanese films, Na Un-kyu considered adapting the Western film styles. In the A Soldier of Fortune, you can witness the Western film style in one of the scenes.
“At that time in Busan, the Joseon Kinema Corporation was founded. Yun Baek-nam became a director, and people like Ahn Jong-hwa and Ju Sam-son gathered. Upon hearing the news of a film company in Joseon, he sold his books and bedding to cover his traveling expenses and went straight to Busan. I think that was in the fall of 1921.”
Na Un-kyu played small parts in the Joseon Kinema Corporation’s The Sorrowful Song of the Sea (1924) and The Story of Woon-yeong (1924), and in The Story of Shim Cheong (Baeknam Production, Lee Gyeong-son, 1925), he played the role of Cheong’s father, Mr. Shim the blind.
“It was dull from the beginning to the end, but only Na Un-kyu’s powerful and bold acting stood out, adding laughter to an otherwise simple story. That was the only high point of the film. This movie by itself showed me Na Un-kyu’s potential as an actor.”
- Kim Eul-han (Film Society), Review for Nongjungjo by Joseon Kinema, Donga-Ilbo, June 27, 1926
“Nongjungjo is an entertaining film. There are more humorous scenes than tragic ones. Na Un-kyu’s optimistic portrayal is quite good. Western-style combat combined with Japanese judo created a brilliant combat scene.”
- Young Mr. K, Chosun-Ilbo, June 12, 1926
Na Un-kyu presented himself to the public through the film Nongjungjo. It was directed by Lee Gyu-seol, but he participated in writing the screenplay and directed the scenes he was in.
“The films that came to Joseon at that time were mostly Western films and masterpieces. The audience stomped their feet in excitement while watching Orphans of the Storm (1921) by D. W. Griffith Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood (1922) made the Joseon audience’s palms sore. … I worked hard, day and night, trying to find out how to revive Joseon films, but I could not figure out why the distance between the films and the audience was increasing. So, I said to my senior Mr. Lee Gyeong-son, ‘I’m fed up. Let’s make a film pretending to be Westerners.’ And he said, ‘Westerners and Asians have different builds, so we can’t.’”
– Na Un-kyu, [Concerns of a Joseon Film Director] when making Arirang, 『Joseon Cinema』 Vol. 1, Joseon Film, 1936, pp. 46~47
“What I wanted to achieve when I started this film was to make a film that didn’t make the audience fall asleep or yawn. So, I needed suspense and humor. To prevent the film appearing poor in quality for those who were used to watching foreign masterpieces, the film needed more actors. So, I had 800 actors appear in this film, which had been the biggest cast in Joseon.”
- Na Un-kyu, [Concerns of a Joseon Film Director] when making Arirang, 『Joseon Cinema』 Vol. 1, Joseon Film, 1936, p. 47
“Arirang received a warm response, which was unexpected. It wasn’t a boring film. It was funny. It wasn’t slow or ambiguous. It was an up-beat, fast film. It copied the styles of foreign films, and it was perfect for the Joseon audience at the time.”
- Na Un-kyu, [Concerns of a Joseon Film Director] when making Arirang, 『Joseon Cinema』 Vol. 1, Joseon Film, 1936, p. 48
“Meanwhile, after Arirang had finished, Danseongsa began to explode. It wasn’t because it was being taken down soon. It was getting a bigger and bigger audience. This groundbreaking film in the history of Korea’s black and white silent film became the talk of the town. Arirang was the first film that broke away from the old theatre style. Another strength about this film was how well it satisfied the audience. It gave them excitement, as if some member of a heroic organization threw a bomb in the middle of Seoul. And they were able to feel that way in public, not in secret.”
- Lee Gyeong-son, Autobiography of the Age of the Silent Films, Shindonga, December issue, 1964, p. 326
“I couldn’t choose any other film outside Arirang’if I had to choose the most highly praised film in the history of Korean films.” (Cho Hee-moon)
“Na Un-kyu’s films are not ‘timeless masterpieces’ but films that exist within the time period. In other words, they exist in the genre or trend of Shinpa and action films, which were popular at the time.” (Lee Sun-jin)
“Arirang was a successful Joseon-style rendition of the organization of Western film under the influence of Japanese Shinpa films.” (Chung Chong-hwa)
With Danseongsa’s support, Na Un-kyu established Na Un-kyu Production and released films written, directed and starred by him continuously between 1927 and 1929. And during this time, he was the leader of Joseon films as both a director and a star.
“In 1931, it became Gyeongseong Studio, and he entered the studio to shoot Geumganghan produced by Wonsanman. Gyeongseong Studio was considered the enemy of the entire film industry, and when he entered the studio, the problem became worse. And finally, the Film Society held a rally to denounce Na Un-kyu. But he starred in Geumganghan without any comments.”
Toyama Mitsuru was a Japanese actor who played a swordsman in Japanese historical films from 1925 to 1951. On December 13, 1930, he founded ‘Gyeongseong Studio, Wonsanman Production’ at Number 19, Furuichi-machi. At the time, Na Un-kyu Production had closed down, and it is suspected that his desire to take part in a film studio was bigger than the risk of crossing ethnic lines. After producing Geumganghan and A Husband Goes to the Border Garrison in 1931, he left the Joseon film industry and went back to the Japanese film industry.
Director Lee Gyu-hwan’s A Ferry Boat That Has No Owner in 1932 was the film where Na Un-kyu shed his standard character and reinvented himself as an actor. He shaved his head and played an old oarsman who couldn’t protect his wife, daughter or his job, and he successfully transformed his acting style. (Lee Sun-jin)
“But Un-kyu, you could’ve gone to a barber shop and had your head shaven with clippers, so why did you shave it with a razor?”
“Haha. Because it’ll take at least 20 days to get ready to shoot.”
-Volume on Lee Gyu-hwan, Compiled by the Korea National Research Center for Arts, Lee Yeong-il’s Testimony Transcript for Korean Film History – Volumes on Seong Dong-ho, Lee Gyu-hwan, Choi Keum-dong, Sodo Publishing Company, 2003
Na Un-kyu “took his first step as an artist making artistic films (An Seok-yeong)” through Oh Mong-nyeo, but this became his final step.
October 18, 1936
Un-kyu began writing the screenplay for Oh Mong-nyeo today. He is planning on showing this in Tokyo after he finishes making the film.
October 19, 1936
He finished the screenplay of Oh Mong-nyeo last night, and Un-kyu went to the studio to get the costumes and other things ready. We will go to Tongcheon to shoot the film when everything is ready.
“He said he wouldn’t act or write from now on and will focus on directing. The disease that was hiding in his body has gotten worse since he worked too hard while producing Oh Mong-nyeo. His lung disease has reached stage 3. His friend and doctor Lee Sun-won came to the set every day and suggested rest and gave him shots. Oh Mong-nyeo was made in 1936, and it was Un-kyu’s final film. Come to think of it, his first silent film Arirang was a masterpiece, and his final sound film Oh Mong-nyeo was also a masterpiece.”
“Music came from somewhere. Un-kyu pretended to be playing the violin, moving his hands in the air, according to the music and whispered something. I was playing ‘go stop,’ and I looked up. He was holding a fan in his hand, just staring at us.”
Na Un-kyu left this world for good at 1:25 a.m. He left this world at the age of 36.
His coffin was carried out at 10 a.m. Many villagers came to see him, and there were also many people from the film industry. I was sad when we passed by Independence Gate, and it rained heavily when we went over the Hongjewon Hill. It was more heartbreaking because the musicians played ‘Arirang.’
- The Diary of Yun Bong-chun, The History of the Korean Independence Movement Online
“The bier left the house after three days. Everyone in the film industry who was in Seoul came. There was such a huge crowd by Independence Gate. The cars and the tram came to a halt. We were following the bier, and the mourns of the bier carriers were heartbreaking. But the horns of the musicians were even more heartbreaking. It felt strange to see young students running up to see Un-kyu’s picture at the front, sob and turn away. When the bier was going up Hongjewon Hill, a heavy rain shower fell. The musicians changed the tune while going up the hill to Arirang, which Un-kyu used to sing quite often. And I couldn’t walk because my eyes were covered with rain and my own tears. I also saw people filming us on camera at the top of the hill.”
“There wasn’t anyone in the Joseon film industry with the kind of technical knowledge on film-making like Na Un-kyu. Like a hero who hadn’t met his time, Na Un-kyu was the only man who continued to make films and stayed in the public’s interest, despite unfavorable times.”
Seo Gwang-je, The Late Na Un-kyu’s Life and Art, Jogwang, Volume 24, October issue, 1937
“His daring directing sense was Na Un-kyu’s cinematic talent. When moving from one sequence to another, he knew if and when foreshadowing was needed, and although there tended to be many coincidences, dressing up as a rickshaw puller in the A Soldier of Fortune and the last scene in Oh Mong-nyeo were all excellent. More than anything, he studied the rhythm and tempo of cinematography, and being an expert editor and director made him unrivalled. As for adaptations, his adaptations were flawless. He sorted out what was cinematic and un-cinematic and created the rhythm for them. As you can see from his films, the reason why his films have speed is because of his comprehension of his films.
- Kim Tae-jin, Discussing the Late Na Un-kyu, A Soldier of Fortune in the Cinematic World (Second Half), Donga-Ilbo, August 11, 1939
Chunsa Na Un-kyu
For 15 years, from 1921 to 1936, he starred in 27 films and directed 18 films.
Curator — Chung Chong-hwa, Korean Film Archive
Publisher — Yoo Sungkwan, Korean Film Archive
English translation — Free Film Communications