The subway is fast, noisy, and very oftern crowded. In everyday life, people get on and off the subway as a means to get to a destination. Nevertheless, in the musical Line 1, the subway represents more than just a transportation method. Among the large crowd of people on the subway, every individual has a different appearance, personality, and emotion. The musical Line 1 focuses on these differences to portray life in various aspects. It is set in South Korea in 1998, when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) financial crisis struck the nation. The story begins as the main character, a young Yanbian girl named Seon-nyeo, comes to Korea looking for her fiance, Je-bi. Apparently, the two met each other when Je-bi visited Mt. Baekdu, where Seon-nyeo was working as a tour guide, and fell in love. Believing in true love, the naive young girl arrives at Seoul Station, where the journey starts.
Clearly, people in Seoul are not too welcoming to Seon-nyeo. Her unusual accent, outfit, and innocence only make her seem more vulnerable. On the other hand, everyone on the subway is rather tired, unamused, and self-possessed. Unsure of which way to go, Seon-nyeo asks where she can find military base #588, but no one gives her an answer. Confused and distracted, she gets on the Line 1 subway, where she meets countless numbers of people, but none who would give her any help. When Seon-nyeo arrives at Cheongnyangni Station, she meets a college student named An-gyung whose leg was wounded during a protest for democracy. Seon-nyeo also meets an old prostitute named Geol-re, who secretly has a crush on An-gyung, and a mixed-race orphan named Chul-soo. Not too long after, Seon- nyeo realizes the address Je-bi gave her was not a military base, but rather a brothel. Meanwhile, Geol-re tries to cut her wrist after taking drugs. Out of kindness, Seon- nyeo offers Geol-re her red handkerchief. After the incident, Seon-nyeo suddenly feels nauseous. The audience realize at this point that she has not only been scammed, but is also carrying Je-biʼs baby. Chul-soo, the mixed-race orphan, decides to help the poor young girl out of pity. He promises he will find Je-bi and that she should wait for him at Grandma Gom-boʼs snack wagon located at Seoul Station.
As Seon-nyeo heads back to Seoul Station, she is once again on the subway. She runs into some quite extraordinary people. One of them is a street merchant who gets on the subway to sell kitchen rubber gloves. Although no one is interested, he keeps on promoting the product and claims his gloves are the strongest. In the end, they tear apart, revealing that he is a fraud. Another one is a cult leader, who annoyingly sings out loud to show his faith. Seon-nyeo also meets a self-proclaimed criminal, an old married couple, a nun, a monk, and others. Out of all of them, the most memorable character is a runaway teenage girl, who tries to seduce old men on the subway. In the process of convincing the young girl to change for the better, Seon-nyeo learns that both the girlʼs parents left her for new families, which explains to the audience why she decided to leave home. At this point, there is a moment of realization for both Seon-nyeo and the audience that perhaps everyone on the subway seems so cold-hearted and selfish because of their own troubles.
Upon arriving at Grandma Gom-bo’s snack wagon, Seon-nyeo meets a new group of strangers. She receives the first most visible act of kindness from Grandma Gom- bo, who provides the poor girl with free snacks from her wagon. Grandma Gom- bo surely has a bad-mouth, but underneath, is one of the most caring characters in the play. She not only offers food to Seon- nyeo, but also to An-gyung, the crippled college student. To her surprise, Seon- nyeo recognizes one of the people at the wagon - Red Pants. According to Seon- nyeoʼs memory, Red Pants is a relative of Je-bi and also visited Mt. Baekdu. Seon- nyeo begs for help and pleads to meet Je-bi, only to find out that everything he had told her about himself was a lie. Meanwhile, the cops march into the wagon in a crackdown on unauthorized vendors. In the midst of the chaos, everyone gathers around to help Grandma Gom-bo fight the cops.
Lost in misery, Seon-nyeo gets on the subway without a destination. In this scene, the subway is depicted as unusually dark and quiet, which seems to represent Seon-nyeoʼs emotions. Across from her, she sees Geol-re. The two are soon joined by other passengers. As if to break the silence between the two, four “Gangnam Ajummas” - a term used to describe rich, extravagant old ladies from Gangnam, Seoul - march in boisterously. The four Ajummas have on the most lavish articles of clothing and jewelry. They claim that although they have BMWs parked at home, they need to take the subway to get to the department store in time for a huge discount on winter fur coats. Considering the play is set during a major financial crisis, their appearance seems to portray a complete breach between the rich and the poor at the time. The next eye-catching passenger on the train is a heavily drunk man returning home from work. Whenever he runs into someone, he mistakes that person as his boss and repeatedly apologizes. Before he gets off the train, the audience learns that he can only endure the stress from work for his loving family waiting at home. His appearance once again highlights the distinct difference between the Gangnam Ajummas and the working class.
After the clamorous crowd of people leave, Seon-nyeo and Geol-re are finally left by themselves. Previously, these two characters have built a bond since Seon- nyeo had offered her red handkerchief to Geol-re when she tried to cut herself.
Although very different from each other, they understand the troubles of one another. In this scene, Geol-re is on the train, looking for her secret crush, An- gyung. When asked why she is in love with An-gyung, Geol-re replies by saying that he has never asked to sleep with her. She also confesses that she is afraid to rob him of his innocence. After telling her own story, Geol-re consoles Seon-nyeoʼs sorrow by singing a song that encourages her to be brave and live on. Geol-re then gets off to look for An-gyung, and the play reaches the end as a sudden crash occurs on the subway.
The musical Line 1 was first introduced on May 14, 1994, and has kept its place as a classic ever since. The record-breaking musical was performed not only in Korea but also in many other countries, including Germany, China, Japan, and Hong Kong to more than 710,000 audience members. It truly distinguishes itself from any other play by depicting the characters with various expressions. One interesting fact is that it is acted out by only 11 people, but the audience meets around 80 different characters.
The continuous success of the musical year after year becomes quite comprehensible after seeing it. The message behind the plotline is more than just storytelling. Seon-nyeo is a symbol for innocence. When she first arrives in Seoul, everyone judges her based on looks and accent. Despite the fact that no one is willing to help her, she helps those who are in need, which in turn, changes peopleʼs attitude towards her. Most significantly, the subway represents the mix of emotions people feel in their daily lives. As mentioned before, Seon-nyeo meets people with different personalities on the subway. To name just a few, there is a merchant, a cult leader, a runaway teenager, rich Gangnam Ajummas, and a heavily drunk working class man. All these people have a different purpose for being on the subway. For instance, the merchant is there to sell his products, the Gangnam Ajummas are headed to the department store, and the drunk man is going home after a stressful day at work. The different emotions these people express can be individually relatable to every audience member. Even when one is feeling particularly discouraged, life will go on just like how the subway continues to run, and in time, hopefully all will turn out to be okay. In modern society, there is a greater disconnection among people, even more so than back in 1998, when the musical is set. Rather than being absorbed by oneʼs own problems, learning to understand other peopleʼs minds can help one look back on oneself -just like Seon-nyeo and Geol-re did. If there is one lesson to take from the musical, it would be “to stay optimistic and live on”.
Date: 2019.10.29 ~ 2020.01.04
Place: Hakchon Blue Performance Hall