Dysfunctional family dissected

  • Published : Apr 28, 2010 - 18:13
  • Updated : Apr 28, 2010 - 18:13

By now, depictions of terminal illness in pop-culture have been exhausted to the point of fodder. 

It is perhaps the easiest way to bait a reaction from the most basic of human emotions. As manipulative as it may be, it is also a fail-safe way to engage an audience even before the curtain is raised.
The dying have traditionally been a reliable source to tug at the heartstrings of viewers for as long as the dramatic arts have been around. This is more the case especially when a story involves a mother, because it forces viewers to think of mortality of their own.

In the stage version of “Saesang-aeseo-gajang-areumdaun-ibyeol (”The Most Beautiful Farewell“), the stirring performance of its lead -- played by an incendiary Jung Ae-ri -- transcends the trite plot and elevates it above its television predecessor.

Her portrayal of a typical Korean mother looking tirelessly after her stock is one that resonates long after the curtains are drawn.

The stage version is stripped of all of the velveeta that was spread over the series when it went on-air to huge ratings and acclaim almost 15 years ago.

Gone are the saccharine music, the telegraphed incidental sound cues, and the over-the-top glossy production finish which gave the story an air of falseness.

These were some of the things Korean TV dramas have become known for.

After all that is snuffed out, what is left is just the audience and an ensemble of actors on the stage playing out scenes meant to push the right buttons to squeeze out those tears.

That is the simple, yet riveting nature of watching this stage rendition.

It is for this reason the clichéd storyline comes alive and makes the story seem sincere. There’s a raw urgency to the stage version that feels as though you were witnessing something real.

At the center of the play is Jung as In-hee, the wife of a disgraced surgeon and mother of two. One is an ungrateful son and the other is a working-stiff daughter -- both are oblivious to their mother’s diagnosis of a fatal illness.

The play establishes early on that she hasn’t much time left before she succumbs to cervical cancer.

Both her son and daughter, along with their father, are thoroughly resigned from family life. They are, simply put, the walking dead lobotomized by life’s hard knocks.

This portrayal is undoubtedly playwright and acclaimed television scribe Noh Hee-kyung’s skewed representation of the Korean family.

Jung, who is back from a three-year hiatus from the stage, convincingly holds court as the personification of the strong Korean woman much regarded for their tenacity.

She single-handedly keeps her family from falling apart and exists as the glue that binds everyone together. Without her, the Kim family’s world would come to a screeching halt.

Adding a bit of texture to the story is In-hee’s deadbeat younger brother Geun-deok -- a gambling addict -- and his simpleton wife with a heart of gold.

Unfortunately, the story again plays with stereotypes by portraying the working class as socially uncouth bumpkin-types.

The play isn’t without its fair share of faults and all throughout it, you can’t help but wonder if there really is someone like In-hee out there who would subject themselves to such chaos without reaching a breaking point.

Throughout the story, she must contend with an Alzheimer’s disease-stricken, foul-mouthed mother-in-law who demands her attention at every waking moment, children that make no effort to spend time with her, and a husband whose endless grief over his past failures threatens to overshadow her own deteriorating health.

This is something the play fails to address.

Some of the cast members also fall unfortunate prey to indicating in their performances -- that criminal act of mimicking emotions through physical movements.

These are however, forgivable offenses that could be overlooked in the broader scope.

The play is at its strongest when it addresses common archetypes of the Korean family structure. The husband, in a phoned-in performance by veteran television actor Choi Jung-woo, is a clear representation of all Korean men that are devoted to being the providers of their family, but deficient in the complexities of nurturing family values.

He represents the ultimate stereotype of husbands clueless in negotiating situations that require expressing or confronting their own vulnerabilities.

These portrayals are done with tact and with good reason.

He is shown going through screaming fits of sporadic rage while often times stonewalling any efforts from his wife to have a normal conversation.

It begs the viewers to question, why would anyone want to put up with such a man?

But we find out through small actions that reveal he is caring and loving and would very much do whatever it takes to keep his family happy.

This is understood by his wife, who is able to look past it all and understand that behind the gruff facade of her husband is someone vulnerable -- almost helpless.

It may not be the most original piece of storytelling. It is, however, a searing look into the mechanisms of Korean families in contemporary times.

The Best Plays Inc. production directed by Lee Jae-kyu runs through July 18 at Daehagno Eda Theater No. 1. Actress Song Ok-sook shares the lead role with Jung.

For more information, call (02) 766-6007 or visit www.thebestplay.co.kr

By Song Woong-ki (kws@heraldcorp.com)