Pioneer filmmaker remembered as a patriot

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Pioneer filmmaker remembered as a patriot

Na Wun-kyu, one of Korea's earliest filmmakers and born 100 years ago today, barely had a free second in his life. His passion for movies and for the independence of his country burned him out, and he died at age 34.

He grew up during turbulent times, when his country lost its independence to the Japanese empire. He died before the restoration of independence in 1945, but was a notable freedom fighter.

Born in Hoeryeong, in the northern part of the peninsula, Mr. Na later moved to Seoul, where he got involved in the independence movement. In 1920, he was imprisoned by the Japanese police, and stayed behind bars for a year and a half.

Upon his release, he approached the movie scene. He got his start in 1924 as an actor in a film made by Korea's first director, Yun Baek-nam. Mr. Na proved to have a real talent for the screen, and became a much sought-after actor.

But that did not satisfy his ambitions. He wanted to talk more about social consciousness, so he became a director. From 1926 to 1936, he made 18 movies; in most he did it all: directing, producing, acting, makeup and sets.

For Mr. Na, movies were a means to be a leader in society, as well as pursue his artistic ideas. "A movie is a cultural activity, thus it bears a responsibility to be at the head of the public," he said. "But it's of no use if we are far ahead of the public. We should be just a few steps ahead." Indeed, his movies were mostly well-received by the people, and spurred social consciousness.

He made his debut film, "Arirang," in 1926. The movie is about a young man who kills another Korean -- a collaborator with the Japanese -- for trying to rape his sister. The title comes from a popular folk song with a plaintive melody. The film opened at Danseongsa, Korea's first theater, to tremendous popularity, so the Japanese censored it.

Mr. Na died suddenly in 1937 under mysterious circumstances, but apparently of exhaustion.

A remake of "Arirang," directed by Lee Du-yong, will soon be released. In a bold move, the new version will be silent, just like the original. The director reportedly took liberties with the original version, using striking artistic devices.

Plus, people in the industry, such as the Korean Movie Directors Association, are organizing festivals, symposiums and exhibitions to honor Mr. Na. For Mr. Na, life was short but his art long.

by Chun Su-jin

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