For those familiar with filmmaker and theater director Jang Jin and his sense of humor, his 1995 play “Heotang,” currently on its third run in Seoul, could come as a surprise.
The show, which Jang wrote at the age of 21 while serving his military duty, is anything but a comedy: filled with violence and surveillance, the disturbing play evokes the horrors of materialistic modern life.
“I wrote the play more than 20 years ago,” the 41-year-old said during an interview with The Korea Herald.
“‘Heotang’ is one of my early works that became the basis of my later pieces that are often considered funny and humorous. And I think it’s fortunate that I started my theater career by writing pieces that are rather dark and serious. If I didn’t, I think, my later works would’ve just ended up being simply funny, without having any depth whatsoever.”
A disturbing account of three jailbirds imprisoned together in an unusually luxurious jail cell, “Heotang” and its open ending leaves much room for interpretation. According to the show’s promoters, the play has been receiving mixed reviews since its first show last month, as many viewers complain that the ending is too “abstract” and are therefore unsure what to think of it.
Jang said the piece is a product of the 1990s and its trends.
“It was not uncommon to stage a piece like this back in the ’90s,” said Jang.
“At the time, a lot of plays had no linear narrative, had open endings and left much room to their audience to figure out. A lot of plays were also socially conscious and critical of the authorities.”
|Filmmaker and theater director Jang Jin. (Adam Space)|
One of the highlights of the current run of the show is, arguably, its newly-introduced stage setting. To “let the audience feel what it is like to observe the imprisoned,” Jang newly created a round, Panopticon-like stage.
The new stage is surrounded by surveillance cameras, CCTV screens and the audience; the setting automatically turns the viewers into observers ― or some kind of god figure ― of the prisoner characters. What the viewers experience as a result is an utter sense of helplessness, as what they can do is to simply “observe” when the characters suffer and scream in pain.
Jang said the piece reflects the questions he had about God and religion when he was in his early 20s.
“Well, I was born and raised in a family where every member was a Catholic,” said Jang.
“And I became rather skeptical and critical of religion in my 20s. My main question was: Why would God let the world suffer like this if he in fact exists? Why does he not answer to most of the prayers?”
Jang, who majored in theater studies at Seoul Institute of the Arts, has written and directed more than 15 films since 1995. His notable film works include “Welcome to Dongmakgol” (2005) and “Good Morning President” (2009). He is currently hosting tvN’s variety show “Saturday Night Live Korea” and appearing as one of the judges on local reality talent show “Korea’s Got Talent.” On top of all that, however, Jang continues to work in the theater scene, and expressed his strong emotional attachment to it.
“If a movie does not do well in theaters, I just shrug it off and say, ‘Okay, well it didn’t work out this time,’” said Jang. “But it’s not so easy with the plays. I take it more personally. Theater is the foundation of who I am today.”
Among many titles of his ― filmmaker, theater director, playwright, screenwriter, and TV host ― Jang said he ultimately wants to be remembered as a writer.
“I want to die in front of my computer while writing,” Jang joked. “Just like how actors say they’d like to die on stage while acting.”
“Heotang” runs from until Sept. 2 at Dongsung Art Center in Daehangno, Seoul. For tickets and information, call (02) 747-5885.
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)