The Korea Herald


Musical resurrects tragic love story of Joseon court dancer and French envoy

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : Dec. 13, 2023 - 23:55

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A scene from A scene from "Lee Jin: The Woman of Light" (Orchard Musical Company)

Inspired by the true story of a Joseon court lady and a French diplomat who fell in love with her, the musical "Lee Jin: The Woman of Light" brings to life the poignant love story set in the dramatic final years of the Korean Empire.

Yi Jin (also spelled Lee Jin) is a court dancer who meets a newly arrived French envoy, Victor Collin de Plancy. As they teach each other their languages and waltz together, Yi yearns for freedom and dreams of a new life.

Playwright Jung Ho-yoon said he drew inspiration from the remaining historical records about Yi, during a recent press conference at the Chungmu Art Center in Seoul.

"In an account from the 1904 book ‘In Korea (En Coree),’ co-authored by de Plancy’s successor, Hippolyte Frandin, it is recorded that Yi swallowed a piece of gold and took her own life. I wanted to imagine alternative futures for Yi," said Jung.

“Why would she swallow a piece of gold? Did she want to convey a message through her death? These thoughts lingered in my mind.”

A scene from A scene from "Lee Jin: The Woman of Light" (Orchard Musical Company)

The narrative delves into the complex relationship among three characters: the protagonist Yi, the French envoy Collin, and Byun Woo-jin, a fictional character who is Yi’s childhood friend and an apprentice official who secretly admires Yi.

Additionally, a nun named Estelle, who teaches French to Yi, plays a supportive role in Yi and Collin’s romance.

Collin, Byun and Estelle each love Yi in their own way while Yi yearns to break free from the rigid, hierarchical social system to which she is bound.

The creative team highlighted that, as the story of Yi is well-known through various mediums, including novels like Shin Kyung-sook’s “The Court Dancer” (translated by Anton Hur), as well as numerous documentaries and books, the production aimed to emphasize “dynamic elements such as singing and dancing.”

"We wanted the audience to feel a sense of catharsis from changes in space (from a Joseon court to the French Embassy). The actors keep changing their costumes accordingly and they dance around a lot. I thought it would be nice to deliver a sense of freedom and liberation,” said Jung.

A scene from A scene from "Lee Jin: The Woman of Light" (Orchard Musical Company)

The two cultures are also intertwined through music and dance. Yi performs Korean traditional dance in her "hanbok" (Korean traditional attire), and waltzes with Collin while wearing Western dresses.

“The spatial aspects of France and Joseon are also expressed through the score. Although there are many triple-meter pieces, I attempted to create ambiguity by incorporating Korean traditional dance into waltzes and vice versa, expressing how Yi is slowly captivated by Collin,” said Uhm Da-hae, who composed the music for the musical

"Lee Jin: The Woman of Light" runs through Feb. 4 at the Chungmu Art Center in Seoul.