Theatre production Jasmine Gwangju celebrates South Korean democracy

This article is from 2011.

Theatre production Jasmine Gwangju celebrates the Gwangju Uprising of 1980 - the beginning of democratisation in South Korea

The Gwangju uprising in 1980 explored in Edinburgh Fringe show

‘Pfweee! Pfweeeeeeeeeee!’

Jun-tae Kim is recreating the noise of fighter jets swooping over the South Korean city of Gwangju. It was 18 May 1980 and he was a young geography teacher, on the streets with thousands of other students and citizens protesting against the repressive military dictatorship. In rolled the US military machine, with gunships, helicopters and even fighter jets. Tanks and 30,000 American troops took over the main thoroughfare of Gwangju, population 180,000.

‘The sky was dark even though it was daytime,’ he recalls. ‘It was like Vietnam.’

The Gwangju uprising, the start of the painful process of democratisation in South Korea, was long and bloody. One hundred and forty-four civilians died and around the same number were wounded. Many were still in their teens. The authorities dumped their bodies on the edge of town.

For Koreans like Kim, in their 50s and 60s, it was the pivotal political event of their lives. The parallels with the recent Arab uprisings are unmissable: Geumnamno, the street leading from the university to the regional government office was the focal point, Gwangju’s Tahrir Square. Yet it has quickly become ancient history for subsequent generations and is virtually unheard of the west.

Now Jasmine Gwangu, a multimedia requiem mass based on the events of May 18, attempts to give the uprising the status it demands. The time is right: earlier this year, UNESCO gave the uprising’s archive world heritage status. But this is not, the artistic team are at great pains to point out, a heavyweight piece of political theatre. Instead it is a theatrical move towards reconciliation, a ceremony in which the restless spirit of one of the victims of the uprising, trapped between worlds of the living and the dead, finally finds peace.

The show is told mainly through traditional Korean music, with dance, shamanic rituals and digital art supporting the narrative. Archive footage, photos of people who died in the uprising, calligraphy and other evocative imagery flash behind the action, add another layer to the experience.

‘The whole process started with victims of May 18,’ says Sam-Jo Jeong, the show’s producer. ‘Some revolutionaries come on the stage, we try to release them, help them take off the whole history and sadness and painful memory. Once we take it off from them, we can let them go to heaven. That is the whole process. The audience is alive and, with the performers on the stage, they are healed together. It is not only for the dead people but the live people also. That is the point.’

The menace that Kim recalls so vividly is absent from the stage, perhaps because the three men behind Jasmine Gwangju were in their early teens when the tanks rolled in. This is not an angry dispatch from the front line but a measured, adult response.

Apart from a couple of previews, Edinburgh audiences will be the first to see Jasmine Gwangju. The creative team are convinced that the message is strong enough to overcome cultural and language issues and have decided against supertitles or other distracting add-ons. It is quite a lot for a western viewer to absorb but the unfamiliarity of the material adds to the power of the piece.

The show’s climax, when the victim’s unhappy soul is finally released, takes the form of a traditional shaman ceremony. Although few people now practise shamanism, it remains at the core of much Korean culture. It is visually spectacular, a ritual cleansing performed in magnificent white ceremonial robes, with fluttering strips of paper on a long pole signifying the paper money that will help the soul to ascend. Even to western eyes, the neck-prickling music and the tender attentions of the healing figure make it quite clear what is happening.

‘Shaman rituals are common on Jin Island,’ says Il Won, the musical director. ‘It is a ceremony which can be understood by people all over the world. When Catholics hold mass, everyone understands that. It is similar with shaman rituals.’

Won composed all the original music for Jasmine Gwangju, using traditional Korean instruments but pulling in contemporary forms. He found inspiration in an unexpected place: the work of Italian avant garde composer Luigi Nono: ‘He made music from the tragedy of the Nazi occupation of Europe and the Second World War. I have listened to his music a lot. The music in Jasmine Gwangju is an homage to him.’

Like the ceremonies and visual language of the piece, the sparse, heterophonic soundtrack is unfamiliar to western ears. Yet it is powerfully affecting. ‘It is,’ says Won, ‘not harmonic, it has its own rhythmical vibration and sound, with strong vibrations.’ The heterophonic structure is another Jin Island influence: ‘Usually the instrument follows the human voice, but their music depends on the other voice. One person sings a song first, the others follow.’

It’s typical of a show that uses modern forms to give a history lesson. Unlike many products of modern, iPad-using, Abercrombie and Fitch-wearing South Korea, Jasmine Gwangju’s creators are willing to look back as well as forward. ‘People of our age experienced a lot in those days,’ says Jae-ho Son, the director. ‘We need to do something to commemorate the dead. Many of us feel guilty that we survived when others lost their lives.’

Jasmine Gwangju, EICC, 0844 847 1639, 13–19 August, 5.30pm, £10 (£7).

Jasmine Gwangju

Jasmine Gwangju

Jasmine Gwangju celebrates the rich cultural history of the Korean city of Gwangju and tells the inspiring story of its famed Democratisation Movement, the uprising against military dictatorship in 1980 which, although brutally put-down, paved the way for later movements that eventually brought democracy and prosperity to…

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