When the stars align and life hands you the opportunity to see one of your favorite Korean actors perform live, you jump on it! I was recently able to snag tickets and attend the Daejeon performance of Shinheung Military Academy Musical, starring Ji Chang Wook, Kang Ha Neul, and Sung Gyu (from the k-pop group Infinite). Since these three actor/singers are currently in the middle of their mandatory military service and have been MIA from our drama screens, it was an especially delightful way to end my time in Korea. AND being able to watch Ji Chang Wook act on the stage, right in front of me, was all that I dreamed it would be!
But First, A Brief History Lesson
Since I watched this musical live without any translation help, just my basic-level Korean skills, I really needed know more about the story! I’m admittedly NOT the history buff in my family, but I took some time to translate a little of the background information (from the gorgeous show program) and engaged in a bit of internet research. What I learned helped me understand just what was going on during this time period in Korea a WHOLE LOT better!! So before I get to gushing and fangirling over Ji Chang Wook’s performance, I’m going to throw down a brief Korean history lesson…
To begin with, 1897 brought about the end of the Joseon Dynasty and ushered in the new Korean Empire, free from Chinese influence. But shortly after this, in 1898, Korea became a protectorate of the Empire of Japan, being fully annexed in 1910, three years after the signing of the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty of 1907. During this time, Korea saw the rise of the Korean New People’s Association (Shinmin-hoi), which was active from 1906 to 1911. The members of this group believed in ideals of democracy and republicanism. Also, because a large number of scholars belonged to the Shinmin-hoi, the organization made a huge investment in education. They established hundreds of new schools to help prepare the people for the future opportunity of Korean independence. They also contributed largely to the Korean Independence Movement.
Two notable members of the Shinmin-hoi were Lee Sang-Ryong, a Korean Liberation Activist, and Lee Hoe-Yeong, a Korean Independence activist, anarchist, and one of the founders of Shinheung Military Academy (신흥 무관 학교) in Manchuria (which is now modern-day China). Lee Hoe-Yeong was born into a noble family and proceeded to dedicate his entire fortune to fight the Japanese occupation of Korea. He was revered as a patriotic martyr who fought in the anti-imperialism/anti-Japanese revolution. The third important name, integral to this time period, is Ji Cheong-Cheon. He was a graduate of the Japanese National Military Academy, intending to serve as a solider in Korea. But, due to the independence movement, he escaped to Manchuria and instead served as a commander at the Shinheung Military Academy, training students to fight the Japanese.
Whew! Okay, for those of you who are still with me, let’s get on with show!
Shinheung Military Academy Synopsis
The following is my loosely translated synopsis of Acts 1 & 2 from the show’s program-
ACT 1 of the musical opens with the mass suicide of members of the Shinmin-hoi in protest of the Japanese Imperialists forcing King Gojong to sign the treaty of 1907 and abdicate his throne. Dong-gyu (Ji Chang Wook) witnesses the death of his father, a Shinmin-hoi scholar, during this public demonstration. Following this upheaval, national leaders, including Lee Sang-Ryong and Ji Cheong-Cheon (Kim Sung Gyu), come together to form the Shinheung Military Academy in Sogang-Do, north of the border in Manchuria. At this school, Dong-gyu, Pal-do (Kang Ha Neul), and other young people who dream of independence for Korea begin training to fight and form fast friendships. Meanwhile, those loyal to the Japanese occupation take notice of the academy and begin making plans to thwart their activities.
In ACT 2, there is a time jump to post-WWI Korea. With the Japanese occupation being supported internationally, Shinheung Military Academy is raided and teachers and students are kidnapped and threatened. A secret between Pal-do and Dong-gyu leads to suspicions and causes a rift between them. The students take part in the battle of Bongodong, a major victory for the Independence movement against Japanese Imperial Military troops. However, as the resistance continues, lives are lost when students launch bomb attacks on the incoming Japanese governor-general. The final scenes and closing curtain leave the viewer with strong feelings of pride and gratitude for the noble sacrifice made by the students of Shinheung Military Academy.
With a story like this, some might wonder why this was a musical production? As I mentioned above, I was completely unaware of the history involved and I walked into the theatre expecting singing, dancing, and an uplifting story. But I momentarily forgot — this is Korea, a country that has dealt with a substantial amount of oppression from surrounding countries, and a people that oftentimes find a sense of pride and identity in the suffering that they have thus far endured. So, while I did enjoy the fabulous singing and dancing, there was also a somberness, watching the struggles of the characters portrayed at that time in Korean history. What I did not expect (and what brought me to tears) were the resounding cheers and applause at the closing curtain. Not just for the talented Hallyu stars that performed their hearts out, but also for memories of the people who gave their all to preserve the freedom of their country.
I very rarely have the opportunity to see a live production, but I love the excitement of watching performers act in person. Since this is a musical, I couldn’t wait to hear the score. The music for Shinheung Military Academy relied on a combination of strings, electric guitar, keyboard and drums. The emphasis on the bass of the drums conveyed feelings of loss, pride, and determination. These feelings were also echoed in the dance routines with urgent, sharp, and dramatic movements. However, there was one light-hearted scene early on (between Dong-gyu, Pal-do, and some of their friends) that was cute and comedic, and brought a moment of light to the otherwise solemn story. Oddly enough, what captivated my attention most was the set design. The main set pieces were attached to a rotating stage. Nothing ground-breaking in the theatre world, but this type of set made for seamless transitions between scenes and keep the momentum of the plot constantly moving forward. I also noticed, in the production notes from the show’s program, that the huge stage frame was designed to look like a part of a torn book, with the names and stories of the forgotten righteous freedom fighters recorded within it.
Ji Chang Wook was A-MA-ZING!!! He portrayed the quiet and sensitive writer, Dong-gyu, who is trying to figure out how to be loyal to his father’s convictions, yet avoid the inevitable bloodshed involved in fighting for his nation’s independence. Yes, yes, I fully admit he is a bias of mine, but seriously! I can verify that the small screen doesn’t dull his natural charisma at all. And his singing–it BLEW ME AWAY! I knew he could sing, as he’s been featured on several drama OSTs in the past. But singing in the studio for a soundtrack and singing live are two totally different things, and I was worried. I shouldn’t have feared. I was rapt by the end of his first song–he has a fantastic set of pipes!! I could gush more, but this post is already running long.
Kang Ha Neul was also a delightful addition to the cast. His portrayal of the slightly goofy but earnest Pal-do helped bring some levity throughout. His role in the movie Midnight Runners was similar to the one he played here, so I think his natural personality must lean towards the comedic side, as he played Pal-do very comfortably.
Kim Sung Gyu played a more serious role as of one of the historical figures mentioned above, Ji Cheong-Cheon. A fairly green actor, I think the transition of performing in a musical was a good choice on his part. His singing, of course, was well done and was what carried his performance throughout.
There are too many to list here, but the other main (and supporting) cast members were as equally talented, bringing to life a wide variety characters. Their efforts made for a very gripping and memorable theatre experience.
I’m so very grateful to have had the chance to see Shinheung Military Academy. Not only to see Ji Chang Wook live (and cement him as a bias on my ‘favorite actor’ list), but also to witness a small piece of Korean history come to life.
Dramas With A Side Of Kimchi