'Subway' Still Intrigues As Slice of Seoul Life Seen by an OutsiderIt's been seven years since Kim Min-gi, the songwriter and director of the theater company Hakchon first staged his rock musical, "Subway Line One," in a small basement theater near Daehak-ro. His play has since carried its bundle of despair and hope from the lives of working class Seoulites to a number of cities. In celebration of the work's 1000th performance, the play stopped in the city of its origin, Berlin, last April. "Subway Line One" is based on "Line 1" by the German playwright Volker Ludwig.
In a conversation with the JoongAng Ilbo English edition, Mr. Kim noted that his recent trip to Berlin was meaningful in more than that sense. He said that the two countries have historical parallels because of their ethnic division as a result of ideological differences.
"Subway Line One" is a reflection of Seoul seen in the eyes of Seonnye, an ingenue from Yenben, China, who comes to the city to look for her gigolo lover in 588 Cheongnyangni, Seoul's renowned red light district. During her ride on subway number one line, she passes a range of Seoulites. These include subway janitors, salarymen, pimps, students, a deceiving evangelist and an old prostitute who has crush on a factory worker who told her that he is a college student.
Through frequent cross-dressing and frivolous gestures by the characters, the work deliberately simulates the low-brow humor often used in classical Korean comedies. Mr. Kim says this was a deliberate attempt to minimize the political suggestions in the work.
"This was not meant to be a political play," he said, while noting that he was bit perplexed when German media approached the work in that way. Due to his reputation as a democratic songwriter during the period of labor activism in the 1980s, Mr.Kim's work tends to be viewed as political even when it is not meant to be.
He once confessed in an interview that he never meant to be a socially conscious musician. His songs just depicted the country's bitter reality. It was the people listening to his music who categorized him as a revolutionary songwriter and this led the government to question his ideological stance.
"The original 'Line One' tends to stress political ideas but it does not do so exclusively. And from the Korean point of view, these notions don't really stand out because our lives have been so strongly shaped by the threatening politics of modern history," he said.
Only 11 actors portray the 80 characters in the play. This set-up may have been inevitable considering Hakjeon's modest number of actors and limited funding, but it has interesting results. The factory worker who turns into a rich widow from Kangnam and then into a policeman kicking vendors off the street in successive scenes adds an ironic twist to the play. The changing roles of an actor who is dominated in one scene and then assumes the role of the dominator in the next reveals the intricacies of power relations.
"After all, this is life in Seoul seen from the eyes of an alien. To her, everyone on the train is just an anonymous character. It's like when we look at foreigners and they just seem to be faceless people who get on and off the train," said Mr. Kim, while explaining his decision to use one actor for a number of roles.
Mr. Kim says he established the company 10 years ago, hoping that doing the producing himself would reduce the cost of the play. But, in spite his efforts, he is currently 500 million won ($385,000) in debt, which he jokingly said mostly went for the actors' food expenses. The good news is that he was recently exempted from paying a copyright fee. Mr. Ludwig agreed that "Subway Line One" is Mr. Kim's work, even though it is based on his play.
Once an art student, then a progressive songwriter, Mr. Kim, 50, says he now wants to explore other inter-disciplinary projects.
"Subway Line One" is playing in Hakchon Theater in Daehak-ro and will tour in Japan and China later this year. The performance is in Korean with English subtitles. German subtitles are also available upon request at the ticket box.
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