Na Chul: Icon of a generation

I’d like to take this post to express my deepest sorrow and utmost condolences to the family and friends of the late Na Chul. He passed away just yesterday, on January 21, 2023. He will be greatly missed by his fans; I can only imagine the pain those close to him are feeling at this time. The world lost a brilliant actor.

A sage piece of writing advice I try to keep near and dear (though where it originated, I can’t say for sure) is this: write what you know.

I, of course, did not know Na Chul, but his performances impacted me greatly. So although I cannot pen paragraphs about his character or personal life, I can use this post to express (at least in part) my admiration for his work. He was truly gifted — an icon of this generation’s artists.

This post is not a character analysis; it’s not a commentary on acting techniques. It’s just going to be a celebration of talent and a conversation about two extraordinarily memorable roles that became memorable because of the actor who plays them. A tribute, if you will, in the best way I know how.

I’ll begin with the first role I saw Na Chul in: that of serial killer Woo Ho Sung in Through the Darkness (2022).

What immediately struck me about this particular performance was how genuinely kind and gentle Ho Sung appears physically — only for viewers to quickly find out that he’s a predator. It’s a textbook example of the wolf in sheep’s wool Aesop warns of. Everything from Ho Sung’s hairstyle and clothing, to speech and mannerisms, are very average; he has wide eyes, a sweet smile, and a soft voice. He appears vibrant and youthful. Charming, even. Yet, the moment he drives off with his first on-screen victim in his car’s passenger seat, viewers quickly realize she just made a fatal error. Literally.

This juxtaposition of physical appearance and character truly packs a punch because of Na Chul. Watching a kind-looking person manifest such evil is unnerving and — from a performance perspective — mesmerizing.

Although his role in Through the Darkness was not very large (he was in the last three episodes, out of a total 12), Na Chul left such an impression on me that as soon as his character is seen onscreen in Weak Hero, I immediately recognized the actor. That right there is lasting impact; that’s a powerful performer.

In Weak Hero, Na Chul plays Kim Gil Soo, the violent leader of a group of runaway teenagers. He abuses them and turns them into thugs and drug dealers; he’s a real piece of work. In fact, in the character’s first scene, he breaks the arm of one of his teens in order to get compensation money from that injury.

Like I said, a real piece of work.

Yet he was captivating, too. I found myself afraid of what he’d do, yet unable to look away. See, nearly anyone can play an angry, violent person (albeit, to varying levels of believability). But not just anyone can make such a character compelling; not just anyone can make viewers wonder how such a person came to be where they are today — who can make quiet glances as threatening or as terrifying as physical punches. That takes immense talent that only Na Chul could bring to this particular role. He owned it — just like he owns all his roles.

He has not only ever played antagonists; these just happen to be my favorite roles of his that I’ve seen so far. Regardless of whether he’s playing a sadistic villain or a sweet big brother, Na Chul gave his all. And it shows.

He was a magician of sorts, breathing life into mere words on a page — crafting characters audiences all over the world can enjoy. He was a true master of his craft.

Na Chul, if I may be so bold as to address you:

Thank you for what you gave to us viewers. Every performance is a gift. You are sorely missed.

Rest In Peace, sir.

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