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National Theater Company revives legendary Cha Beom-seok's 'Hwal Hwa San'

Director asks whether a play created as propaganda in the 1970s will still resonate in 2024

June 11, 2024 - 18:04 By Hwang Dong-hee
From left: actor Kang Min-ji, director Yoon Han-sol and actor Koo Do-kyun pose for a group photo at the National Theater Company of Korea. (National Theater Company of Korea)

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of renowned playwright Cha Beom-seok's birth, the National Theater Company of Korea is staging "Hwal Hwa San."

Directly translated to "active volcano," the play is set in a small rural village in North Gyeongsang Province during the late 1960s. It follows the story of Jeong-sook (played by Kang Min-ji), the daughter-in-law of the Lee family. Despite their noble lineage, the family teeters on the brink of ruin due to mounting debts. Jeong-sook steps forward to restore the family’s fortune.

Historically, the play was created as propaganda to promote the Saemaul Undong movement, a political initiative launched to modernize the rural economy during the Park Chung-hee regime in the 1970s.

The play premiered in 1974 by director Lee Hae-rang, with the original cast starring notable actors Baek Sung-hee, Jang Min-ho, Son Sook and Shin Gu.

"Hwal Hwa San" in 1974 (National Theater Company of Korea)
From left, actor Kang Min-ji, director Yoon Han-sol and actor Koo Do-kyun attend a press conference at the National Theater Company of Korea. (National Theater Company of Korea)

"I was curious if a piece created as propaganda to promote the regime's projects in the 1970s would still resonate in 2024," said director Yoon Han-sol in a recent interview with reporters.

"When I first chose to stage this work, we had deep concerns. Some parts don't logically make sense, and it has its blemishes as government propaganda at the time. But I thought it was a good play, even as propaganda, and that it would be interesting and meaningful to revive it on stage today."

Yoon discovered "Hwal Hwa San" while reading through Cha's complete works after receiving a commission from the NTCK to mark Cha's centennial. Although it is not one of Cha's most famous works, its inherent charm persuaded Yoon to proceed.

"Only after choosing the play did I learn it was propaganda. Despite the controversy, it is an interesting and compelling play on its own. None of the other works I read were as enjoyable as 'Hwal Hwa San.'"

A scene from "Hwal Hwa San" (National Theater Company of Korea)

Yoon also noted that it was striking that a play written in the 1970s featured a woman as the main agent of change.

"I was intrigued by its criticism of politics at the time and the outdated customs of noble families."

Yoon has chosen to direct "Hwal Hwa San" without any adaptation or alteration.

"I thought there was a way to make contemporary audiences empathize with the era without modifying the work. My job is to persuade the audience with the text as it is."

A scene from "Hwal Hwa San" (National Theater Company of Korea)

He particularly mentioned the play's final passionate speech by Jeong-sook.

“Doesn't progress always leave someone marginalized and excluded? As the village begins to transform, 'surplus humans' start to disappear -- the disabled couple, old servant and children. I wanted the audience to observe how individuals consent to and participate in this collective movement.”

Kang Min-ji plays Jeong-sook, and Koo Do-kyun plays her incompetent husband, Sang-seok. The actors have dedicated themselves to delivering realistic performances, including special dialect coaching to capture the original regional accents.

“Hwal Hwa San” runs until Monday at Myeongdong Theater. English subtitles are available Thursday and Sunday.