Crime and Punishment


Deep in the jungle of Thailand: the “railroad tracks of death”. They lead to a Japanese prisoner camp dating back to World War II.

This is the backdrop for a TV documentary about to be shot. First come the cameraman and the cable guy, in the disguise of backpackers. Then a well-dressed producer enters the stage, followed by an old man—an amnestied ex-guard of Korean ancestry, the protagonist of the show to be filmed.

Knowing only the title Macbeth Below the Equator (적도 아래의 맥베스) when I arrived at the Myeongdong Theater (명동예술극장), I expected a tropical re-creation of Shakespeare’s tragedy. What I got was a historical drama with a didactic impetus that centered on the recollections of the old man.

He was one of several hundred ethnic Korans drafted by the Japanese military as guards to run POW camps in the regions conquered by the imperial army. Later many of them became prisoners themselves, prosecuted as war criminals by the Allied forces.

The scenes in the prison camp, run by the Allied forces (represented by two speechless guards and an officer wearing a turban), make up the core of the play. In an ocre-colored prison cell, complete with bare shower-tube and jungle scenery in the background, five war criminals both of Korean and Japanese origin struggle with their fate.

They fight, drink, perform an impromptu Macbeth (thus the reference), sing “Arirang“, share a last cigarette, and in the end two of them are executed.

Once again walking across  the railroad tracks, the old man is haunted by his memories of the hanging of two fellow inmates, himself being next on the list. After two hours of recollections—which seem to have brought some peace of mind vis-a-vis his dubious past—he has a vision of falling stars, twinkling light effects projected on the curtain.

It really surprised me that such a problematic theme (how to deal with war criminals who were themselves victims of colonial suppresion) was handled with so much pathos. Then again, the situation is complicated.

The real person the character of the old man is based on, LEE Hak-rae (이학래/李鶴來), was drafted at the age of fifteen. After the end of World War II he was put on trial by Australian military prosecutors, charges were dropped, later he was sentenced to death which finally was reduced to 2o years in prison.

The question whether someone like Lee was merely “a youth caught up in the gears of the imperial war machine”, as the Hankyoreh puts it, or at least partly responsible for the inhumane treatment of the prisoners, quickly extends to a debate on the role of Korean collaborators, beneficiaries, and victims in the ear of Japanese colonisation. Namely, an act of amnesty offered by a South Korean government commission in 2006 provoked criticism.

The following links—some “golden opinions from all sorts of people” (Macbeth I.7)—might provide a first glimpse on the variety of perspectives:

  • GIL Hyeong-yun, “The complicated history of Korean war criminals”, Hankyoreh 2007 (link)
  • Japan-based Support Group For Ex-Korean BC Class War Criminals (link)
  • Michael Breen, “Truth Commission Should Be Truthful”, Korea Times 2006 (link via Tom Coyner)
  • Discussion at “The Marmot’s Hole” (link)

Chong Wishing (photo: Nobuku Tanaka)

The author of Macbeth Below the Equator is JEONG Ui-sin, better known as CHONG Wishing (정의신/鄭義信), a 2.5-generation Korean born 1957 in Himeji, Japan (姫路市). He worked as a scriptwriter for TV dramas and movies and also wrote several plays that often deal with the experienceso of jae-il gyopo, i.e. ethnic Koreans living in Japan.

In Yakiniku Dragon (焼肉ドラゴン, staged as a Korean-Japanese joint production in Tokyo and Seoul in 2008), maybe Chong’s greatest theatrical success to date, he tells several stories happening at a Korean restaurant in Japan in the 70s. (See a synopsis of Yakiniku Dragon and an interview with Chong at the Performing Arts Network Japan.)

In an interview in the Seoul Sinmun (서울신문, 14 Oct. 2010, by 조태성), Chong elaborates on the Shakespearian reference:

“Macbeth was to some degree perpetrator, to some degree victim. It is not easy to make a definitive decision. And it is the same with the B- and C-level war criminals. […] Although Macbeth was able to shake off the temptation at first, in the end—incited by his surroundings—he decided to cover his hands with blood. The story of the Korean war criminals is similar. They fell for the promise that after two years of accepting a monthly salary of 50 won, they would get a regular Japanese payment. Because of this decision, they became war criminals.”

The tagline “I was eighteen back then… there was no other choice.” (그때 난 아직 18 살… 다른 선택은 없었지요.) likewise focuses on the unavoidability, the fatefulness of young men turning into torturers. Maybe I am a especially critical on an approach that stretches the private dilemma as in recent years large-scale TV dramas like Dresden (2005) which stress individual suffering over collective responsibility have dominated the German discourse on guilt and atonement.

Furthermore, I understand that “Macbeth Beyond the Equator” should be considered a biographical play that focuses on and tries to do justice to an individual’s testimony. Still, I think it would have been good to include other vitimized voices. Then the memories of one man could be more than his story—by becoming part of a discourse on history.

— 5 Oct. 2010 (火)

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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