ART REVIEW ‘We Are All at War’

Playwright and theater director Park Kun-hyung talks about social issues through the lives of ordinary people. “All the Soldiers are Pathetic,” whose premiere garnered a huge response last year, has returned to the stage again this year. The mere fact that so many people support and can relate to the play reflects the public’s thirst for social change.

Photo for the poster of “All the Soldiers are Pathetic,” a Theater Company Golmokgil production written and directed by Park Kun-hyung, which premiered at the Namsan Arts Center in March 2016. Thanks to raving responses, the performance continued into 2017 at the Incheon Culture & Arts Center and the Seongnam Arts Center.

“All the Soldiers are Pathetic” by director Park Kun-hyung, premiered in Seoul in 2016, has opened again this year in nearby cities, including Incheon and Seongnam. The play won the Dong-A Theater Awards for best play and best audiovisual design last year. It was also selected as one of “Top Three Plays of the Year” by the International Association of Theater Critics Korea and one of the “Top 7 Performances of 2016” by the Korean Theatre Review, a monthly published by the National Theater Association of Korea. In addition, it was officially invited to Festival/Tokyo 2016, Japan’s leading performance arts festival.

Theater Director spotlighted in the Socio-political Context
While “All the Soldiers are Pathetic” received a raving response from the art and culture community, over the past few years it was actually the socio-political community that discussed Park Kun-hyung and his works most frequently. Park was one of the artists on the controversial “blacklist” drawn up by the previous administration of Park Geun-hye, which included figures who criticized the government or satirized politicians.
In 2013, the National Theater Company of Korea planned to stage Aristophanes’ three comedies, and in September that year, Park presented a contemporary adaptation of “The Frogs.” The original work by Aristophanes, a famous Greek comedy writer of the 4th century B.C., is recognized for parodying prominent figures. Park thought it would be meaningless to stage the play as is, so he superimposed 2013 Korean society and politics on it, injecting a satirical interpretation into the original. The show proved so popular that tickets were hard to get hold of. Although some critics were skeptical of the theatrical execution, the audience found it “fun,” “gratifying” and “liberating.” Conservative media stirred up controversy by commenting that the play disparaged former president Park Chung-hee.
In 2015, “All the Soldiers are Pathetic” was selected as an eligible candidate for a creative grant from the Arts Council Korea, but following outside pressure to pull out on the grounds that “soldiers were negatively portrayed,” Park Kun-hyung eventually withdrew from the program. As the public got wind of this, the issue made headlines in the press and tickets to the show, which opened at the Namsan Arts Center in March 2016, were soon sold out.

Director Park Kun-hyung, who talks about family and social issues through the lives of ordinary people, is wary of art for art’s sake and eschews art without zeitgeist, or the spirit of the times.

“We all are to blame that the political scene is not changing. It means that art is not doing its job properly. Art for art’s sake is useless. Art needs to be sensible, intelligent, and responsible for the contemporary time.”

The Single Truth Pervading All Episodes
The playbill of “All the Soldiers are Pathetic” reads: “History is not recorded chronologically but should be remembered as the cries of the people. Theater Company Golmokgil [Alleyway]’s new production ‘All the Soldiers are Pathetic’ sheds light on certain moments in 1945, 2004, 2010 and 2016, when identical cries were heard in Korean history. Regardless of time and place, the people cried out that they wanted to live.”
A compilation of four independent events occurring at different times and in different places, the play is about soldiers who face crises and eventually death: a soldier deserting his military base in South Gyeongsang Province, Korea in 2016; a Korean soldier voluntarily joining the Japanese suicide squad in Okinawa, Japan in 1945; a Korean youth working for the U.S. military in Fallujah, Iraq who was kidnapped by an armed group in 2004; and members of the Korean navy who lost their lives when their warship sank off Baengnyeong Island, Korea in 2010.
However, director Park Kun-hyung focuses on neither the military nor the individual soldiers. It is the powerless members of an organization who suffer when that organization wields its brutal power. It is the numerous ordinary people who are deprived of their right to survival at the whim of a handful of powerful people who pretend to work for the country out of patriotism but actually pursue their own interest in power. When faced with death, these ordinary people choose survival over justice or a noble cause, and love for their families over loyalty to the country. The soldiers in the play thus speak on behalf of the ordinary people, expressing realistic and universal hopes and dreams.
Park talks through the fugitive soldier: “We are all at war. We are all soldiers in that we either have to kill or be killed.”
The fugitive soldier, afraid of a society where he fails to find the meaning and value of life, chooses to kill himself by placing himself in front of his fellow soldiers’ guns. The tragic circumstances tell the audience what was going on inside the head of the young soldier who had so desperately wanted to find the purpose of life and live a good life.
Despite the different forms and different times, the deaths of the nameless soldiers are all alike. They perish with the same sadness and loneliness in their hearts. They did not wish for world peace; all they wanted was to have dinner with their family. Standing between them and their simple dreams are the greed and illusions of those in power. Unless their greed and illusions stop, the ordinary people’s hopes and expectations will remain futile, bear unhappiness and bring unfortunate outcomes.

“All the Soldiers are Pathetic” is a compilation of four independent events occurring at different times and in different places. The soldiers facing unfair deaths under urgent circumstances speak on behalf of the ordinary people whose trivial, realistic hopes are crushed in events beyond their control.

Wary of Art for Art’s Sake
Park Kun-hyung is a shy man. Nothing about him is striking; he has bushy hair and wears old glasses and clothes that look somewhat scruffy. When he is embarrassed, he runs his fingers through his hair, and occasionally he smiles with his lips tightly sealed. He looks like someone you would randomly run into in your neighborhood. His stage design is very simple, too, featuring a few boxes and a couple of sticks. The actor’s lines are far from spectacular. Nevertheless, his productions are special, and it was the audience, not theater critics, who first noticed it. His shows are often sold out, for he has gained the kind of fandom more commonly associated with celebrities or actors.
His plays are full of life. The scenes and the lines on stage are so real — it’s as if you were overhearing conversations in the subway, on the bus, or on the street. Park debuted with “Ode to Youth,” whose script was based on actors’ real lives. His plays mainly deal with family matters and social issues revealed through the lives of ordinary people. They draw responses from a wide spectrum of viewers, ranging from the young to the middle-aged. Park was one of the main figures behind the success of small theaters during the 1990s and 2000s.
Contrary to his quiet and shy appearance, Park is firm and determined on the inside. He is known for both his tolerance and leadership: he has a way with the actors, speaking his mind without ever raising his voice during rehearsals. He keeps pondering the role of art and how it must function. In that sense, small theater is a perfect fit for him. He is wary of art for art’s sake. When I interviewed him more than 10 years ago, Park said, “A very good actor without zeitgeist, or the spirit of the times, can be poison to society. A lousy artist is better than a venomous artist. We all are to blame that the political scene is not changing. It means that art is not doing its job properly. Art for art’s sake is useless. Art needs to be sensible, intelligent, and responsible for the contemporary time. We are not going through a revolution right now, so we need to participate in politics to make a change. People who do not vote do not have the right to criticize politicians.”

Quietly Changing the World
Park describes himself simply as one of the many people who carefully studied ordinary people’s hardships with a magnifying glass, but that he was lucky to get noticed. Quiet though he is, he knows how to get to the bottom of things as a director. Such tenacity is what changes the world.
The citizens’ candlelight protests in the winter of 2016 changed the government leadership in Korea and removed from power the blacklist creators who had plunged the art community into despair. It was indeed a peaceful people’s revolution. The power that drives change is a slow current, quiet and deep.

Kim Su-mi Theater Critic
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