I finally purchased tickets to "Yoduk Story," the musical I mentioned on March 28 and February 26. Five of us went to the final showing on Sunday afternoon. "Yoduk Story," a musical about life in Yoduk Prison, a North Korean concentration camp, was so popular during its short run that it reopen for a few weeks in mid-April. We were very fortunate to get tickets, because right after we secured tickets, we learned that the remaining performances were sold out.
Yoduk Story was interesting to say the least. Following are some of my observations about this newsworthy musical that has intrigued me for the past month. I was happy to see that the show had a successful one-month run. I enjoyed watching the director, Jeong Jang San, hand out awards at the end of the final performance. I’m not sure that would have happened had it been a failure.
"Yoduk Story" was lighter than I expected. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I imagined hell on earth set to music. Perhaps my senses have been dulled by gratuitous violence on TV and film, but the musical was not as hellish as I expected. Of course, some scenes left me feeling shocked and saddened. The scene "Prison of Hell" during the first half of the show introducing Yoduk Prison was unforgettably disturbing, and the penultimate scene where virtually the entire ensemble ended up murdered in bloody gunfire is seared into my mind. However, most scenes were more melancholy than murderous, entangled in the tragic hopelessness of both prisoners and guards. Throughout the musical, the theme of North Korean repression transcends the sheer misery of Yoduk. Director Jeong Jang San made it clear that most North Koreans–not just those unfortunate to be imprisoned in Yoduk–are victims of a brutal regime that represses them with omnipresent savagery. The musical number "Better Be Careful" hit home with one powerful message–just one whisper in North Korea can mean the difference between a privileged life and certain death at Yoduk.
Some lighter scenes left one feeling that the story’s depiction of Yoduk Prison was more upbeat than life truly is behind Yoduk Prison’s electric fences and barbed wire. For one, hard labor plays a tangential role. In reality, I’m certain that Yoduk’s prisoners are far too busy working and too weary and malnourished to engage in the kind of sane dialogue portrayed in the musical. I’m sure that not one prisoner at Yoduk dares sing out of fear of being overheard, abused, and murdered. In addition, none of the actors in the musical appeared malnourished, inhuman, or disfigured, unlike those who actually reside in Yoduk Prison (thankfully). The storyline was riddled with inconsistencies. For example, in one scene, General Lee Myoung Soo, head of Yoduk Prison, tells prisoners that no grass grows in Yoduk because prisoners are not worthy of eating it. However, in another scene, young prisoners sing songs while playing near a stream lined with beautiful flower bushes. Despite these contradictions, the story conveys a powerful message of brutality and hope–absolutely shocking to a South Korean audience unaccustomed to unvarnished depictions of North Korea.
I was also intrigued by the overtly Christian aspect of the story. "The Lord’s Prayer" and "God, please don’t just go to South Korea" were key themes throughout the story. None of the Korean or American media outlets commented on the fact that the director is a Christian who turned a story initially written in anger at North Korea for killing his father into a piece that celebrates faith in a place devoid of hope. Jeong Jang San began writing "Yoduk Story" as a labor of love for his father, who was executed at Yoduk when his son defected from North Korea. Later, he called the story cathartic and wrote that he had forgiven the country for murdering his father. Throughout the musical, Christianity is depicted as the only hope prisoners have and the only hope that can save the North Korean people from its brutal regime.
I was happy that the show featured a teleprompter that translated the dialogue into English. It was much easier to understand the plot with English subtitles. I was surprised to see how many young children watched the show. I went without my wife because I thought the visual imagery would be too shocking for her (she agreed). I thought it was inappropriate for children under 18 years of age to watch "Yoduk Story." It reminds that Koreans are more tolerant of exposing youths to influences that Americans consider offensive or inappropriate–the same feeling I had when I stumbled upon a plastination exhibit at Seoul Children’s Grand Park. (Plastination is a process by which human cadavers are injected with plastic and carved into artistic sculptures.) Moreover, at times during the show we were subjected to smoke from a smoke machine that bellowed smoke on stage. The smoke effect was cool, but it was out of control. Whenever the auditorium filled with smoke, I felt like I was in the middle of a dreaded Yellow Sand attack. Perhaps the director wanted the audience to feel uncomfortable while they watched the show. It worked.
"Yoduk Story" was a noble attempt to tell a story that is very difficult to tell. Although it has been hailed as Korea’s version of "Les Miserables," this production does not have a heroic, hopeful ending. It lacks the depth and sophistication of great musicals such as "Les Miz" and "Phantom of the Opera." The director could have focused more on character development and human relationships. Instead, he shapes his characters’ behaviors to convey the story’s message. For example, when Gang Ryun Hwa, a famous North Korean actress who is sent to Yoduk after her father is arrested for spying, is raped by General Lee Myoung Soo, she becomes pregnant and gives birth to Lee’s child, Lee Yo Duk. The production does not explain how Gang and Lee’s relationship progresses from that of rapist and victim to loving parents intent on caring for their illegitimate son. The story features other, equally interesting characters, including a Japanese abductee, a South Korean fisherman caught in North Korean waters, a South Korean Christian who returned to North Korea to rejoin his family, a crazy woman who thinks she is Spanish, and conflicted prison guards who must grapple with obedience, loyalty, brutality, and their souls. Their tragic stories play minor roles. That’s a shame. Director Jeong should have spent more time developing these characters and bringing their stories to life. He could have done this without sacrificing a message of hope and imagery of hell on earth set to music.