The Socio-politics of Hedwig and the Angry Inch in South Korea

July 12, 2010

James Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with graffiti from the East and West sides of the Berlin Wall tattooed on his wings

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a visual and sonic masterwork combining history, philosophy, music, and the search for identity.  Interweaving the fall of the Berlin Wall, Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symphosium, subtle hints about the Holocaust, and the trials of searching for identity as a transgender citizen can seem like a heavy mash-up of what would be a daunting story to explore, but Hedwig, thankfully, actually works.

At the core of the story is the character Hansel.  The story acts as his testimony, exploring his time in West Germany after his East German mother put him in a wheelbarrow and escaped to the Communist West.  When an American GI fell in love with him, he forced Hansel to undergo a sex change (described as “leaving a little part of him behind”) so that Hansel can pass inspection.  They emigrated to Kansas where Hansel (officially Hedwig post-surgery) struggled with the concept of finding her “other half” after the GI left her, not knowing if this other half would be a man or woman.  In her search, she came across young Tommy Speck with whom she shared her music and love. 

Hedwig and the Angry Inch has enjoyed success in, of all places, South Korea where, as a rock musical, it has been performed for at least four seasons with all the songs and dialogue translated into Korean.  This is very interesting because of the societal and political factors that shape South Korea today, factors which one would think would hinder the popularity of a musical such as Hedwig in such an environment.  Surprisingly, the story of Hedwig has more than thrived in South Korea, with performances in front of a full audience most nights. What has bolstered the popularity of Hedwig in a place where it is more likely such a story would be rejected and criticized?

South Korea, one of the most technologically advanced societies of our world, is still a homogeneous nation that lags in its racial/social tolerance.  Perhaps because of the strongholds of Christianity and tradition, homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgenderism are exceptionally difficult to accept and understand in Korea.  Homosexuality and bisexuality are considered perverse, social taboos with many rejecting the idea that these sexualities even exist in Korean society.  Korea’s first transgender model/singer, Harisu, is still considered by many a controversial icon, nothing short of a freak and a sufferer of “mental illness.”  In Korean society, non-heterosexual preferences could potentially turn one into a social pariah.

And yet the story of a transgender rock-’n-roller from West Germany has captivated the Korean audience, Hedwig’s trials put at the forefront for all to observe, relate to, and attempt to understand as she reconciles her male-and-female halves.  The success of Hedwig in Korea is an immense curiosity — what makes it appeal to a society where transgenderism is condemned?  What makes the character of Hedwig loved by the Korean people and do they connect with her? (Oddly enough, there is an actual scene in the film where Hedwig jams with Korean Army wives, bringing Hedwig and Koreans together within the script).

Even more interesting is finding a comparison between the political environment constructed around Hedwig to that of the Korean people.  Hedwig and the Angry Inch is in part the story of a divided country, the East-West/Communist-Democratic counterparts of Germany before the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  Korea, now the only divided country in the world, still retains its Communist and Democratic halves.  The division of Korea, unlike Germany’s wall and Hedwig’s inner wall, has not yet been reconciled. To what extent does the Korean audience, however, really connect to this aspect of the story? It is difficult to say — it is mainly the younger generation that populates the seats of performances of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and it is the same younger generation that has grown apathetic to the plight of Korea, many of them hostile to the idea of reconciling the South and North together. Still, the story of the divided country haunts Hedwig’s story, as it does the stories of the Korean people, one of the main undercurrents that shapes the search for identity for both Hedwig and her South Korean audience.

Korean Hedwigs lined up for a picture taken by Korea Times

Reportedly, the Korean production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch plays a series of upbeat encores at the end of the show to counter the gloomy ending, a move that rakes up audience appreciation.  And in 2007 when James Cameron Mitchell himself, in a rare move of performing outside the US, went to Korea to perform Hedwig, not only did ticket sales rocket but Mitchell also donned a Korean traditional hanbok in a gesture to further reach out to his audience.  Not that he really needed to, since, for reasons we may never fully understand, the story of Hedwig and her angry inch has been loved by a people who have difficulties coming to terms with such topics.  But if it takes a work of art to widen the views and mindsets of a group of people, Hedwig is one of the few that truly can, and do so in such a manner that lets us see the human inside the freak.

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