The writer and composer for the musical “The Day That the Camellia Blossomed,” which opened in Daehak-ro, Seoul on the 6th of this month, combined Jeju’s tourism policy and its history to unfold the tragic story of the Jeju Uprising.
While previous plays portraying the Jeju Uprising had been somber in their atmosphere, “The Day That the Camellia Blossomed” was designed for youths to easily understand the Jeju Uprising through laughter.
“The Day That the Camellia Blossomed” was produced by the production company Mega Planning, which specializes in gugak or traditional Korean music productions, and boasts a cast consisting of young gugak performers including renowned performer Oh Jeong-hae, who is highly regarded for her performance in “Seo Pyon Je.”
The play describes a complex story interwoven with Jeju’s suffering from the April 3 Incident against the backdrop of Bukchon-ri, where capital and the government are driving the construction of a port and large-scale tourism facilities at the cost of overturning the entire town, as told through the perspectives of an elderly woman who opposes the development project, the developers themselves, the elderly woman’s son who wishes to sell her house and leave the town, and a screenwriter who visits the elderly woman’s house to report on a camellia tree that never blossoms.
The camellia represents the Jeju residents who were sacrificed at the time of the Jeju Uprising, while Bukchon-ri is one of the towns that suffered the most from the mass killings of the incident and also served as the backdrop for author Hyun Ki-young’s “Uncle Suni.” The camellia tree in Bukchon-ri was burned during the Jeju Uprising with the bodies of the victims buried underneath it, thereby symbolizing the sorrows of the lives that could not blossom.
Since the establishment of the Comprehensive Jeju Tourism Development Plan (1973 – 1981) as part of the policy from 1970 to bring in foreign currency, Jeju tourism has an area of such enthusiastic development desire for the Korean government that it even introduced an unconstitutional legislative bill titled the Jeju Development Measure Act (Plan) in 1991 to forcibly allow capital to develop land in spite of opposition by local residents.
Even today, the island of Jeju serves as a place of rest for tourists from mainland Korea, accommodating more than 15 million visitors per year and undergoing constant development projects.
The hummed lyrics “Give me a new house, I’ll give you the old one / Let me sit on a cushion of money / Let’s demolish the old town of Bukchon / Let me see my fortunes reversed” demonstrate the notion that the local residents have been blinded by the developers.
Bun-im, the elderly lady who opposes the development project, has a painful past in which her groom was killed by government forces on their wedding day around 70 years ago. Nonetheless, the developers cruelly mock this local resident who continues to suffer from the violence of state authority, singing “You’re Granny Bun-im, a local celebrity in Bukchon / An illiterate, arrogant, cantankerous old woman / Her husband died on her wedding day / That’s when she became so weird.”
As she struggles to stop the unflowering camellia tree from being uprooted, Bun-im’s painful memories are unearthed, causing her even deeper grief.
She recalls the time of the tragedy, singing “I just don’t know / What went wrong / The seas turned red / The people collapsed / The sky dyed black / The children screamed / Everyone screamed / Everything came to an end” and candidly exposes the barbaric atrocities committed by the government around 70 years ago in the lyrics “Arrest everyone you see / Kill everyone gathered here / Wipe every red commie from the face of the earth / Destroy everything you see.”
Bun-im laments that the survivors suffered even more than the dead, with only death providing relief from the suffering.
“The fact that I survived / Was too much to bear / I recall the nightmarish sights of that day, even when I close my eyes / I try to forget it all, but the memories keep coming back / Maybe I’ll forget everything when my life comes to an end.”
The camellia that does not blossom, or cannot blossom, highlights the possibility for painful memories to heal as well as reconciliation and coexistence with the sincere apology of the perpetrators and the forgiveness of the survivors.
The screenwriter who sought out Bukchon to see the unflowering camellia tree promises not to forget the state violence perpetrated by his father, who was a police officer during the Jeju Uprising, and to commemorate the victims.
“I will keep this promise, no matter how much time passes / Just like the camellia that blossoms amidst a snowy, frozen field / We will remember your heartrending memories.”
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