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[Herald Review] Propaganda play turns into absurdist black comedy

June 11, 2024 - 18:15 By Hwang Dong-hee
A scene from "Hwal Hwa San" (National Theater Company of Korea)

Playwright Cha Beom-seok's "Hwal Hwa San," which premiered in 1974, was a work of political propaganda inspired by the real-life figure Kim Myung-soon, a model example of the Saemaul Undong movement.

In bringing the play back to the stage after almost half a century, director Yoon Han-sol was intrigued by the question of how a 50-year-old propaganda play could resonate with a contemporary audience.

Rather than adapt or alter the script, he chose to add twists in directing through occasional appearances by stage staff, inventive sets and overblown theatrical devices. This way, he created a sense of confusion and contradiction between the 1974 story and the 2024 staging.

The story follows a noble family's collapse and subsequent revival led by Jeong-sook, the family’s daughter-in-law, criticizing outdated customs while promoting the Saemaul Undong initiative aimed at rural economy modernization.

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

The first act begins akin to a black comedy. Jeong-sook’s in-laws, from a once-prestigious lineage, lives in a dilapidated tile-roofed house, struggles to afford school tuition and relies on neighbors for meals. Despite this, they rigorously follow ancestral rites and borrow alcohol and chickens to entertain their guests.

The men shout with loud voices while the women speak demurely. Sang-seok, Jeong-sook’s husband, who has no proper job, insists that she does not interfere in men's affairs. The grandmother demands a three-year mourning period for her husband, even if it means the family goes further into debt. These irrational and unreasonable traditions are humorously portrayed.

The highlight of this part of the play is when this passionate young woman confronts outdated traditions and her effort to overcome patriarchal norms.

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

The second act differs drastically in tone, more like a completely different play, focusing more on propaganda and agitprop elements.

An absurdly oversized model pig dominates the stage in the second act. Whenever the pig roars, the stage shakes, and the characters fall over, gazing at the pig with reverence.

Power dynamics among the characters shift dramatically. Jeong-sook, once submissive in traditional hanbok, now wears green work overalls with her hair loose while Sang-seok cradles a baby in a sling.

In the final scene where Jeong-sook gathers the villagers to discuss plans to rebuild a war-damaged bridge, she passionately shouts, "We are a volcano that has been simmering underground for ages. Now, it's ready to erupt on its own accord. Everybody! We must rise. We must push forward. We must drive out poverty!"

As her speech intensifies, the villagers, all in green overalls, burst into tears, raise their arms and echo her words. The collective madness of the crowd is chillingly close to horror.