THOSE WHO have served their military terms often reminisce about the days with disgust, but also with an unmistakable glint of pride in having gone through the ritual nonetheless. Girls stifle a yawn at their tales, and change the subject. Hence it might raise a few eyebrows to hear that Special Letter, a musical about military life framed with a comic flurry of handwritten letters, is out to grab the attention of both sexes. The result turns out to be a surprisingly successful one.
Military service: welcome to hell?
Men dread getting drafted. Special Letter's protagonist, Jung Eun-hee, has a best friend who details why by mail. 27-year-old Lee Chul-jae, at the bottom of the military social ladder, realizes a vital truth soon after he enrolls: make your senior unhappy, and soon you will be too. His greatest terror is Sergeant Kim, a puny but tough soldier who sees the private as a source of entertainment. With his clumsy Newton and Fabre imitations and a natural tendency to misunderstand commands, the only talent Lee seems to have is paving a fast road to utter misery.
In the meanwhile, Jung receives several letters. The first is a written order for military enrollment that he had long put off in order to buy time to confess his feelings to his crush, Oh Sun-gyu. Oh, a tomboyish girl who usually sports a yellow sweatsuit with nerdy glasses, feels the same about Jung. But as Jung repeatedly fails to summon up the guts to tell her so, she grows impatient.
The second mail is a sweet love letter Jung gets from Sergeant Kim. "Lee told me how beautiful you are," Kim coos; Jung crumples the letter in repulsion. An explanation is offered by a third letter: "help me out man," Lee pleads to his so-called best pal with a misleadingly feminine name. "I blurted your name out by mistake when Kim threatened me to introduce a girl to him. Write back to him, please, just once!" But lies beget even more fantastical lies, and Kim grows more demanding with each correspondence first asking for Jung's phone number, and soon after, a meeting.
Behind the scenes
Sounds too unrealistic? According to Park In-seon (Director & Playwright), the musical is based on what actually happened to Park's friend, who, like Jung, received a heartfelt letter from a sergeant. Unlike Jung, that letter went straight into the trash. But Park kept thinking of the might-have-beens, then his own military experiences, and mixed the two together. Special Letter was thus created. The fresh take on military life and vivacious characters won it an award at the Daegu International Musical Festival.
"I think the Korean military is pretty much the same everywhere," says Park. Although he served in the police force for his military service, which might sound easy-going, Park says it still had the strict hierarchical system of the military. "When I was the equivalent to a private, I made mistakes just like Lee. After I graduated from the lowest rank, I was sandwiched between Lee-like juniors and oppressive seniors who both gave me hell, and this continued on when I became a corporal. Then when I finally became a sergeant, I also complained that time never went by quickly, and asked newcomers to introduce potential girlfriends to me."
A human touch
Private Lee is subject to his seniors, just as his seniors are restricted according to their respective standings. This systematic rigidity is unchangeable - a senior can command or hit his junior but never the other way around. However, as the plot unwinds itself, the soldiers strangely start to reveal an uncanny commonness regardless of their ranks. Brutalization might inflict these men, some more severely than others, but they ultimately endure the same experience, and this binds them together. Consequently, privates, corporals and sergeants alike sing under the moonlight while they stand guard, wishing one thing: that time would pass quicker. Sergeant Kim, on a softening moment, hands Lee a Choco Pie. "It's hard when you're a private," he consoles Lee. "That's just how things are."
Most of all, Special Letter portrays relationships with relative realism. Couples are bound to face conflict while the men serve in the military (one ex-girlfriend sends a marriage invitation to a soldier who had hoped to win her back once he got out), others renew their love. Military service tests relationships, not only in this musical but also in real life.
Despite the strain two years of separation puts on couples, Special Letter maintains a positive outlook: near the end of the play, Sergeanl Kim mutters as the traffic light before him turns red, angry that he has no girlfriend. "Why is my life always a red light?" To this Private Lee chirps back in military fashion, "But then again while I wait for the red light to change, it would be green for all those cars passing by, sir!"
* * *
Many university students go through a conflicted time because of the men's obligation to fulfill their national duties. Couples worry whether they should maintain their current relationship or break up; men dread the thought of sacrificing their youth during those long, dreary months. Special Letter candidly draws upon these experiences to create a familiar ground that everyone can relate to, regardless of their sex or whether they have served in the military. On the whole, the awesome vocal power of the budding actors as well as the humor peppered throughout the work come through as a charming crowd-pleaser.
Title: Special Letter
Genre: Musical, Comedy
Place: Daehangno, SM Art Hall
Aug. 15 ~ Nov. 1, 2009
Price: R: ￦40,000, S: ￦25,000
|Interview with Park In-sun (Director & Playwright)
What importance do letters have in this musical?
As the title directly implies, this musical is about a special letter. Everything happens because of Sergeant Kim's letter that Jung receives one day, and the musical ends with Jung exchanging letters with Oh when he finally gets enlisted. These days people use email; the only mail we get through post are advertisements or credit card bills. But in the military, handwritten letters become significant. It's one of the very few modes of communication soldiers have with the outside world. I wanted to show how a single letter makes these soldiers laugh and cry, especially since sincere, handwritten letters have become an anachronism today.