The history of Korean journalism can be explained into three large phases: Taedong-gi (Wakening Period, ~1970s), Baljeon-gi (Development Period, 1980s~1990s), and Byeonhyuk-gi (Revolutionary Period, 2000s~2010s). Even though there were several developments in the media during the 1980s, this period was also a dark time where the Chun Doo-hwan regime severely intervened in the media’s functions. This can be highlighted by incidents that occurred at the time, such as the rearrangement of the press, the forced dismissal of journalists, and the release of the Basic Press Act.
The Basic Press Act refers to guidelines drawn up by a government organization that was known as the Ministry of Culture and Information (the name has now been changed into the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism), and was responsible in controlling the news content. In the Basic Press Act, the government made a daily direct order on what is considered as an appropriate news source to the press by dividing news into three categories: ‘acceptable’, ‘unacceptable’, and ‘prohibited’. The Act also pressured the media to follow these guidelines and those that did not suffered penalties. There was an incident when some journalists who exposed this Basic Press Act to the public to fight for press freedom, were arrested for a violation of the National Security Act in return.
The Play, Report Guide, is a courtroom drama which portrays a trial of two journalists: Kim Joo-hyeok, an elite reporter, and Kim Jung-bae, the editor-in-chief of the Monthly Monologue magazine. This play reconstructs the trial of an actual court case that was presented in the Fifth Republic of Korea after the aforementioned exposé of the Basic Press Act. All the characters in Report Guide used to be college friends who spent their youth together at a school drama club. However, the characters find themselves at an ideological confrontation where Kim Joo-hyeok and Kim Jung-bae are charged with exposing the Basic Press Act by Prosecutor Choi Don-gyeol. The play entertainingly goes back and forth from the past and the present.
Report Guide starts with a press conference hosted by Joo-hyeok and Jung-bae, where they are revealing the Basic Press Act. Both journalists scatter the Monthly Monologue everywhere in the hope that many would read their magazine and fight for change. This Act results in the two being sent to trial, where Joo-hyeok, Jung-bae, and lawyer Hwang Seung-ok are on one side, and prosecutor Choi is on the other. Additionally, Song Young-dal, who was also the professor and head of department during their college days, takes the role of the judge.
In this throwback scene, the four friends are at the drama club’s orientation, where they experience the club’s forcible drinking culture. As they drink, Choi exclaims: “I want to be a beggar, a thief, and a revolutionist at the theater club,” as he is from a rich family so wants to experience different things. In contrast to Choi, Hwang is the son of a poor family who wants to characterize himself as a wealthy man. Additionally, Kim Joohyeok and Kim Jung-bae have their own different backgrounds and reasons for joining the club as well. Despite their different backgrounds, they all share the same spirit of struggle in surviving in an unjust society.
One day, while searching for a piece that they could work on for their annual performance, Choi suggests Bertolt Brecht’s novel, Life of Galileo. While they all agree to perform Brecht’s work, Song Young-dal, an alumnus of the club who is also their department head, strongly opposes their decision and begs them to try something else instead. This was because Brecht was an East German man, and the play was also banned from being discussed in Korea as Galileo was a man who rebelled against prevailing doctrines.
When the boys are told not to attempt a production of Brecht’s play, they questioned: “Why not?”, “What is so wrong with the playwright being East German?” To this, Song retorts by saying that sometimes, silence is necessary, but he could not win over the students’ stubbornness. At the end, the members are heavily punished due to their performance of Life of Galileo.
Throughout the play, Choi, Seunguk, Joo-hyeok, and Jung-bae are in an ideological confrontation. The four used to fight against the same unfair deeds in society, but Choi has turned his back after being a prosecutor. It is not clear why Choi changed. However, this distinct confrontation between the accused and the plaintiff can also be described as the conflict between the unreasonable governmental power and the citizens resisting it.
The previously mentioned unique introduction of the play makes the audience members feel immersed in the storyline, and it induces active interaction between the actors and the audience by encouraging them to take photos of the scene. There are also characters that do not have a fixed role but are referred to as The Man and The Woman. These characters break the fourth wall by directly addressing their monologues to the audience, and also by watching what is happening on stage while sitting with the audience members.
The play is also meaningful in that it portrays the social situation of the time through impactful characterization. First of all, prosecutor Choi symbolically represents the authoritative manner of those in public power. He tries to justify the government’s unreasonable acts by insisting that whatever they argue is true which turns out to be based on ridiculous and unjustifiable reasons. This represents the government’s attempt to control individual freedom for national interests, in contrast to the national ideology which claimed to pursue liberal democracy. Secondly, judge Song symbolizes those who finally surrendered after resisting governmental authority. As a young man, he resisted unreasonable power at the risk of torture. In the beginning of the play, he is praised by those in the drama club for actively protesting and taking a clear stance according to his ideologies. However, when he tries to limit the four juniors; Joo-hyeok, Jung-bae, Don-gyeol, and Seung-uk from trying to perform Brecht’s work, he does so because he is terrified of his higher-ups and how their theatrical production could harm not just the four students but also his reputation. During the court scene, Song overlooks what plays out from the judge’s bench. This can also symbolize the ordinary citizens that recognized and watched the problems occur within society but didn’t do anything about it. Lastly, the two journalists, Kim Joo-hyeok and Kim Jung-bae and the lawyer Hwang Seunguk, symbolize the aggressive resistance by the Korean people. Despite the torture and pressure around them, they are consistent with their stance, from their college years to the present. “The theater spirit”, which is emphasized several times within the play, is also connected to the spirit of the period that the characters are in and symbolizes their spiritual ideology, leading to the revelation of the report guidelines incident.
Report Guide is based on a real-life story that occurred in the 1980s but emphasizes the attitude that the media should take even in events that are still happening today. Currently, we live in a society without such guidelines. However, it is difficult to say that we live in a society where freedom of speech and expression is wholly guaranteed. When bad events occur in the political world or in high-ranking officials, a series of celebrities’ scandals break out. Then, what is the real freedom of the media? How can we pursue it and what position should we take from now on? We can take a moment to think about this while watching Report Guide.
Date: 2019.04.26 ~ 2019.07.07
Place: Daehakro TOM Theater Two