“Shinheung Military Academy” stood proud as one of the nominees for best musical in the Korea Musical Awards last Monday. But while the top prize went to another production, “Shinheung” will always be a winner in our hearts.
Our purpose for going to Busan amid subzero conditions last December was to see South Korean actor Ji Chang-wook in the flesh. However, “Shinheung Military Academy” left us with more than just a fangirl fix: its lofty story about love for country, and dying for it, unexpectedly tugged at our heartstrings.
“Shinheung Military Academy” was a musical staged by the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) in celebration of its 70th founding anniversary. It premiered in September of last year and went on a four-month national tour, with its last four shows held last Jan. 4 to 6 in the province of Daegu.
The announcement that Chang-wook and fellow celebrities, Kang Ha-neul and Sung Kyu, would be part of the musical got their fans worked up. It was a chance to see the three actor-singers who have been out of the limelight while they serve their two years of mandatory military duty.
It would have been easy to walk out of the theater after the show satisfied just to have seen them in person. However, what these talented actors managed to deliver to the audience—aside from a healthy dose of their good looks—was an inspirational tribute to the countless nameless patriots who fought for Korean independence from the Japanese colonialists in the early 1900s.
Complementing the superstar headliners was a superb supporting ensemble made up of fellow enlisted soldiers and veteran stage actors. This single cast—which means nobody had understudies in its entire run—worked tirelessly to bring the story to life in an engaging visual and musical performance.
This is especially noteworthy because—in case it wasn’t clear and we failed to mention it—the entire musical was in Korean. As non-speakers, we rely on English translations to understand our Korean dramas. In the absence of these subtitles during the play’s live performance, we had to rely heavily on context clues and a few Korean words we knew to understand what was going on in the two-hour show.
It was thus a pleasant surprise that the musical had the ability to transcend the language barrier with its performers’ first-rate acting skills, memorable melodies and excellent production value.
That being said, this is how we understood “Shinheung Military Academy”:
Four young Koreans—Na Bal, Hye Ran, Pal Do and Dong Kyu—who are drawn into the revolution fueled by love of country meet at the Shingheung Military Academy and immediately form a bond. Majority of the independence fighters at the school were young and unafraid to die for their country.
Dong-kyu (Chang-wook) is the son of a Confucian scholar. He is a serious poet-thinker and strategist who fought with his pen and his words.
Pal-do (Ha-neul) was the spirited orphan in farmer boots who represented the grassroots freedom fighters. He teased Dong Kyu constantly about his writings, but nonetheless managed to win over the young intellectual into a steadfast friendship.
Hye Ran (Im Chan-min) convinced the Chinese to support the military academy. Cute and bubbly in her red cheongsam, Hye Ran fought with her slingshot.
Na Bal (Lee Tae-Hyun) is a woman pretending to be a man to join the liberation army. She becomes becomes a trumpeter, an important role as she signals attacks, retreats, formations and victories.
The four revolutionaries offered their lives in exchange for their country’s freedom. And in the musical’s final song, Dong Kyu, Pal Do, Na Bal and Hye Ran join everyone in singing the promise that, even in death, their spirits will live on.
Lively song, profound lyrics
When we found this translation online, we couldn’t imagine that the lively song with the melody that still keeps on playing in our heads had such profound lyrics. These revolutionaries committed to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country with smiles on their faces and triumphant fists in the air.
We had tickets for Saturday’s matinee show. But the night before that, a Korean gentleman saw us at the lobby of Busan Cultural Center and gave us his tickets because he had to leave with his friend 40 minutes into the show.
We were lucky to have watched the musical twice, got to join two standing ovations twice, and got see Chang-wook, Ha-neul, and Sung Kyu five times over that December weekend.
“Shinheung Military Academy,” ROKA’s fourth musical, could arguably be described as government propaganda. It is propaganda, however, that speaks of a universal truth: heroes are not afraid to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
The Philippines does not have a shortage of heroes. At different stages of our history, we have fought for our own independence and freedoms. “Ang mamatay nang dahil sayo” still strikes a chord when we sing the national anthem. We take pride in the courage of the Filipino.
But thinking of what we have become these days, too, we admit there’s a little sadness in our hearts. How do we become patriots again?