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`Les Miserables' of North Korea

A musical set in a concentration camp is slated to open in Seoul. The director is betting a kidney it will succeed.

February 22, 2006|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — Perhaps not since Mel Brooks conceived "Springtime for Hitler" in the comedy "The Producers" has there been such an unlikely premise for a musical.

Chorus lines of goose-stepping soldiers and emaciated political prisoners will prance across the stage when "Yoduk Story," a tear-jerker about a North Korean concentration camp whose name has the resonance of Auschwitz for some Koreans, opens here next month.

Among the catchy tunes that South Korean theatergoers might soon be humming are "If I Could Walk Freely" and "All I Want Is Rice."

The tragedy of the divided peninsula is, not surprisingly, a familiar theme in South Korean popular culture. But the most successful offerings have been thrillers and spy flicks, an occasional shoot-'em-up war movie or a syrupy drama about separated families. Few have dared tackle the harsher realities of North Korea, such as starvation or human rights abuses.

And certainly not in the form of a musical.

"Yoduk Story" is the brainchild of Jung Sung San, a 37-year-old North Korean director who defected to the South in 1994. It hasn't been easy bringing his labor of love to the stage. At one point, Jung was so short of money to pay the 80 members of the cast and crew that he pledged a kidney as collateral to borrow $20,000 from a loan shark. (He says he will have to donate the organ in April if he doesn't pay back the loan.)

Two theaters refused to put the musical on their stages. Jung says he has received threatening anonymous telephone calls as well as official complaints from the South Korean government that the content could impair reconciliation efforts with North Korea.

"This government is not interested in hearing bad things about North Korea," Jung said.

But the biggest problem for Jung might be South Korean audiences. The musicals that are popular here at the moment are lighter fare, most of them adaptations from Broadway. On the marquees are Korean-language versions of "Grease" and "The Producers," in which an impresario trying to lose money decides that a musical about Adolf Hitler will be a sure-fire flop -- only to come up with an inadvertent hit.

"Koreans love musicals, but they come to enjoy themselves and to relax," said Kim Jung Han, a New York-educated theater student who plays a North Korean guard in "Yoduk Story."

"This one is kind of heavy."

Director Jung rejects such downbeat thinking. He envisions "Yoduk Story" as a Korean version of "Les Miserables."

"Even a dark and tragic story can be beautiful," he said.

In fact, audiences might find it more reminiscent of "Jesus Christ Superstar" because of a Christ-like character who is one of the inmates in the prison camp, or even "Fiddler on the Roof," because of the schmaltzy songs about uprooted and separated families. The score by South Korean composer Cha Kyong Chan includes one particularly mournful song that evokes the melody of "Sunrise, Sunset" as an old North Korean man laments lost family members.

Jung insists that he doesn't expect "Yoduk Story" to be depressing to South Korean audiences.

"It will make them realize what happy lives they have here," said the director, a slight, almost elfin man who wears his shoulder-length hair with blond streaks.

At a recent rehearsal in a mirrored basement studio, Jung sat in a black canvas director's chair, pumping his knee impatiently as he watched dancers strut across the floor with red flags.

Occasionally he would bounce up, yelling one of the few English words he knows, "Stop, stop," so that he could correct members of his all-South Korean cast on North Korean intonations and mannerisms.

Jung rolled his eyes at a group of young male actors dressed in slouchy T-shirts and jeans, posing awkwardly as North Korean prison guards.

"That's not how you hold the gun. Like this," he demonstrated.

"Yoduk Story" is not autobiographical, and Jung never served time in the concentration camp, which houses tens of thousands of people, many of them political prisoners. But as he tells it, he might easily have ended up there if not for a few twists of fate.

He grew up in the North's capital, Pyongyang, a child of the elite. His father worked for a government company that imported bulletproof Mercedes-Benzes for the leadership, while the younger Jung attended the Pyongyang Drama and Movie College, where he had the rare privilege of watching foreign films. James Bond movies were his favorites.

But in 1994, his passion for foreign culture landed him in trouble. He was caught listening to South Korean radio broadcasts in violation of the law and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

"They always want somebody from the elite to make an example of," Jung said.

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