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Remembering the colonial period and the Korean War

Theater troupes present shows featuring turbulent periods of modern Korean history in the month of March 1 Independence Movement Day

The month of March opens here with the March 1 Independence Movement Day, a national holiday dedicated to commemorating the 1919 nationwide uprising against Japan’s colonization.

The uprising, known as the March 1st Independence Movement, was one of the earliest public displays of Korean resistance against Japanese rule ― which ended in 1945 at the end of World War II.

This month, Seoul’s theater scene is presenting a number of plays featuring the turbulent period of Korean history. One of them is “Red Poetry” by Theater Company Gorae. The play deftly links the controversial suicide of the actress Jang Ja-yeon in 2009 to the stories of elderly women who were forced to be sex slaves for the Japanese military during World War II. 
A promotional image of Theater Company Gorae’s “Red Poetry” (Theater Company Gorae)
A promotional image of Theater Company Gorae’s “Red Poetry” (Theater Company Gorae)

Jang, who had just starred in the TV drama series “Boys over Flowers” at the time, killed herself leaving a seven-page handwritten note claiming she had been sexually and physically abused by high-profile media executives.

The play is being told from the perspective of fictional character Dong-ju (played by Kim Dong-wan), a reporter who is deeply disturbed by the sudden death of a popular actress, a stand-in for the late Jang. The story unfolds as he goes to the next world through a mistake by the angel of death, and meets up with the actress as well as the former sex slaves who still seek an apology from Japan.

“The victims in the play repeatedly emphasize the importance of speaking out,” said the troupe’s promoter.

“This play strongly believes in the power of words, as well as speaking out. The two cases that appear in the play may seem like they have no relevance to each other, but they do. Those who committed the violence never properly apologized, and many of us, the public, still remain silent about what happened.”

Meanwhile, another local troupe, Mirage Kaleidoscope, is presenting “Flying of a Bee,” which delves into the Act on the Punishment of Anti-national Activities, established in September 1948 to punish pro-Japanese collaborators during the Japanese colonial rule. The act, however, was suspended by South Korea’s first president Syngman Rhee’s regime ― just before the Korean War in March 1950. Rhee also suspended the execution of those who had been found guilty.

“The Syngman Rhee government found itself having to respond to the division into two Koreas by crafting a strong state that could play an active role in the establishment and maintenance of a powerful anticommunist system,” writes local scholar Oh Il-hwan, in his 2011 paper “Anticommunism and the National Identity of Korea in the Contemporary Era: With a Special Focus on the USAMGIK and Syngman Rhee Government Periods” published in the Review of Korean Studies in 2011.

“Here, administrative officials and policemen who had gained valuable experience during the Japanese colonial period would inevitably have been perceived as useful resources through which to secure such objectives. … Under such circumstances, the Act on the Punishment of Anti-national Activities in 1948 to weed out pro-Japanese elements could only be regarded by Syngman Rhee as a proverbial thorn in his side.”

“Flying of a Bee” features the court trials of Bae Joeng-ja (1870-1952), a Korean-born woman who was raised as the adopted daughter of Ito Hirobumi (1841-1909), who served as Resident-General of Korea during the Japanese colonial period. He was assassinated by Korean nationalist An Jung-geun in 1909.

Bae worked with Ito Hirobumi as a spy for the annexation of Korea by Japan, and became the first female pro-Japanese collaborator to be arrested by the law enacted in 1948. She was released upon the suspension of the law in 1950. The spy has been featured in a number of local films, Jeong In-yeob’s 1973 biopic “Femme Fatale: Bae Jeong-ja” and Jang Yoon-hyun’s period drama “Gabi” from last year which dealt with the death of King Gojong (1852-1919).

“We did not create this play to punish Bae,” said the play’s director Ryu Seong-cheol. “It’s more about those we could not ― or chose not to ― make the just decisions about history of the period.”

Meanwhile, homegrown musical “The Goddess is Watching” concerns itself with the Korean War (1950-1953) and its brutality. Created by local troupe Stage Yeonwoo, the show takes place on a remote island during the war. It tells the story of six different soldiers, some members of the North Korean army, who end up living together on the uninhabited island after a shipwreck.

The plot develops as a solider named Soon-ho, the only member of the group who knows how to fix the ship, suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing his brother’s death in a battle. Another member of the group named Young-beom creates a story of a beautiful goddess to console Soon-ho and ease his fragile mental state.

“Everything that happens in the show is fictional,” said the director Park So-young. “The goddess does not indicate an actual person or a spiritual being, but symbolizes the universal femininity. We believed that it can bring an immense healing and empowering effect in extremely violent and devastating situations like the war in our history.”

“The Goddess is Watching” runs until March 10 at Chungmu Art Hall in central Seoul, while “Flying of a Bee” also runs until March 10 at Kijakeun Sonamu (Little Pines) Theater in Daehangno, Seoul.

“Red Poetry,” on the other hand, runs from March 22 to March 31 at Daehangno Art Theater, also in Seoul’s Daehangno district.

By Claire Lee (