I have never written a fanaccount in my life. And because I’m much more used to writing critiques and reviews, what follows might not be what you expected. However, since I promised a lot of people that if I get a ticket to a showing of Tears of Heaven where Junsu is the main lead I would write a fanaccount, here it is…
Necessary Background Information
Few international fans are aware of the source material that inspired this production, Jo Sungmo’s Ashinayo music video (click here to view) and its rather considerable significance to the Korean social psyche. In 2000, Jo Sungmo released his music video, a 10-minute blockbuster set during the Vietnam War that tells of a tragic love story between a Korean soldier and a Vietnamese woman. The video and the music made quite the impact. Not only did it keep Jo Sungmo on the top of the charts for weeks, it launched the career of Shin Mina.
The content of the video re-opened questions surrounding the role of Korea and Korean soldiers in the Vietnam War. As the music video suggested, a lot more Korean soldiers than had been thought had loved Vietnamese women or fathered children by them. The majority of these Korean fathers subsequently died—the Korean government sent soldiers to Vietnam after the US promised that it would give the Korean government several thousands of dollars (or was it hundreds of thousands? In any case it was a lot of money) for every Korean soldier that died in Vietnam, which the Korean government at the time eagerly grabbed as free development aid—but the few who had survived started telling their stories. NGOs and even the Korean government at some point, paid for these Korean-Vietnamese children to be reunited with their fathers in Korea.
Koreans of previous generations already knew that the Korean government sent Korean soldiers to Vietnam in order to obtain free development aid that rises with the Korean body count; that this gave American and Korean generals every incentive to send Korean soldiers to the battles that only a crazy person would think he could survive; that the American command, trusting the reputation that Koreans are naturally cruel (a reputation popularised by the Japanese colonial government when Korea was a Japanese colony), sent Koreans on all sorts of black ops; that Koreans inflicted horrible torture on the Vietcong and other Vietnamese, such as skinning alive. This is all common knowledge, but until Jo Sungmo’s video, most Koreans were too busy avoiding being impoverished to pay much attention. But in 2000, a new generation was rediscovering this history. It caused quite a stir.
Koreans, who had become used to seeing themselves as the righteous and innocent victims throughout most of their history, had to confront the possibility that they were just as skilled at being the perpetrators; that what Koreans had suffered at the hands of their neighbours and others, they were capable of inflicting too. However, ironically, most of the resulting criticism and anger was directed at the Americans and added to the already-existing anti-American sentiment of that time. The attitude of the American command, using Korean soldiers in black ops and to do the dirty work in Vietnam, reminded Koreans of the policy of the Japanese colonial government: the Japanese, unable to subdue the resistance and independence spirit of Koreans, used Koreans who had been broken as slave labourers in Japan as prison guards, spies and torturers against their fellow Koreans.
Thus, all these themes—family mysteries, being sent to unsurvivable battles, traditional victim turned perpetrator, the colonialist mentality—appear in varying degrees throughout Tears of Heaven. (Interestingly, it is the English lyrics of the songs and not the Korean that emphasise the North-South split that apply to both Korea and Vietnam at the time of the Vietnam War.) In this sense, this is a very Korean production. It has no resemblance to Miss Saigon except in setting.
Bloody hell! I have never seen so many women in one place in my life. The oestrogen was palpable. I truly felt sorry for the few boyfriends and male relatives who were dragged to this; such an overwhelming female presence has got to have been intimidating.
Just starting from the metro stop—Dongguk University—where you catch the shuttle bus to the National Theatre, there was a long line of women. The shuttle buses that struggled uphill to the Theatre were jam-packed…with women. The lobby of the venue as well as the square outside was brimming with—you guessed it—women: Korean women, Japanese women, of all ages, buying Tears of Heaven trinkets and programmes and concept CDs or taking an unbelievable number of photographs next to several life-sized Junsus. The entire affair felt like a field trip with the Junsu Fan Club. Only the Korean fans fiddling with their binoculars reminded me that I am indeed at a theatre.
I found my seat. On the ground floor. A VIP seating, but near the back. The girls beside me had binoculars but they really weren’t necessary. We were near enough the stage to be able to see the actors’ faces.
Review of Tears of Heaven: The Good
I am actually not a fan of love stories or anything considered romantic; I absolutely detest the romantic comedy genre, unless it comes from Shakespeare or Molière. And Tears of Heaven did indeed have more than a few cringe-worthy lines that pander to the proudly sentimental, maudlin, soap-opera penchant in Koreans but make me reach for a vomit bucket. However, the production values of Tears of Heaven were so good that I was able to forget quite comfortably that I was watching a love story. I have seen a couple of London West End productions in my lifetime and I felt that Tears of Heaven would not have been out of place at the West End. The set-designs, the props and costumes were all convincing and impressive. There are several scenes that use interpretative dance, shadows or both to quite good effect and successfully portray the theme of hidden emotions, which ties in well with Tianna’s theme “Shadows on My Heart”.
The music was absolutely stunning. And it helped that it was being sung by equally stunning singers. Junsu, Yoon Gongju, Brad Little and the actress who played Quyen all sang their numbers wonderfully. In fact, there wasn’t single weak voice in either the main or supporting cast. The production’s investment in hiring Frank Wildhorn and a Broadway music team clearly paid off.
Except for a couple of places in Brad Little’s acting, where I thought I saw the Phantom materialise from in front of a smoke machine, the acting from the main cast was solid. Special mention must be made here to Junsu’s co-star, Yoon Gongju. Not only did she have difficult parts to sing, which she executed with poise and skill, but her acting too deserves every compliment that exists. It was that good. She even had this cynical b*tch on the verge of tears in several scenes. Junsu made me forget that he existed. This might not sound like a compliment but it is. It means that Junsu successfully disappeared into his role and made me forget that I was watching an idol’s career vehicle. By half an hour into the First Act, I was simply watching a good musical production and Junsu was just another musical actor. Junsu was especially good at capturing the enthusiastically innocent and youthful side of Joon. He became comfortable enough with the role that he ad-libbed many times, adding his own interpretative touches.
The old lady in San Francisco carrying the hippy Peace sign and the gay cross-dresser were love itself.
Review of Tears of Heaven: The Not-so-Good
As stellar as Junsu’s acting was, I couldn’t help but feel in a couple of scenes that his interpretation of Joon didn’t quite benefit the plot. As I said before, Junsu captures the youthful enthusiasm and innocence of Joon, a simple Korean soldier who dreams of becoming a writer when he returns home after his tour in Vietnam. I hear that Jeong Dongseok, one of the other actors in the role of Joon, chooses to emphasise rather the more artistically passionate and fiery side of the aspiring writer. I wonder what it would have been like if Junsu had decided to bring forth more of this aspect to his interpretation of Joon. Perhaps the falling-in-love and actual love scenes between Joon and Linh, which felt rushed and slightly unrealistic for Joon’s character as expressed by Junsu, would have been more believable.
Several of the backdrops were clearly CGI-rendered and shoddily completed.
Tianna’s costume in the last scene is unfortunate.
As I said before, some of the lines should have been left in the latest episode of Days of Our Lives.
Review of Tears of Heaven: The Downright Disappointing
Before attending the show, I’d read several accounts by Korean fans on the Internet and each obsessed about the kiss scene and bed scene in the musical. Several fangirls testified that the heat in those scenes brought them to near fainting. And given that this musical is after all a love story, I had high expectations for the kiss and love scene.
The kiss scene wasn’t terrible, but it’s true that I’ve seen steamier kissing on the streets of Paris. They don’t call it French kissing for nothing. Unfortunately, Junsu’s kiss forgot to bring back that parfum from his last trip to Paris. At the kiss scene, the girls beside me whipped out their binoculars for the first time, but left me wondering whatever was worth the peep.
When I read the hype around the bed scene, I immediately recalled the time I watched Russian opera Lady Macbeth of Minsk on its opening night at the Opera of Geneva. The bed scene from this production involved the female lead on her back in bed belting a high F whilst her male co-star was doing “it” showing his naked behind for the entire audience to see. Therefore, I was wondering if I would also be seeing Junsu’s famous posterior in such naked detail for Tears of Heaven too. Alas, it was not to be. The “bed scene” consisted of Junsu and the female lead playing Ring Around the Rosies round Linh’s bed. I’m still bitter about it.
Post-Show Situation and Wrap-up
After the show, I needed to go to the loo, but there were so many women in line that the Theatre staff allowed many of us to use the men’s toilet. I felt truly sorry for the guys who stepped in for a leak to find that they’d have to hold it in a little longer. Crossing the lobby, I saw a huge crowd gathering, already taking pictures even when no one was there where their cameras were directed. I only found out later that several celebrities, including Junsu’s good friend Kim Hyunjoong, were due to arrive for the evening show.
I’ve had time since to gather my final thoughts on Tears of Heaven. It was well worth the ticket price and I can see it go on to immense success in the rest of Asia. However, I believe it’s success in North America and Europe will be limited. First of all, comparisons to Miss Saigon will be unavoidable, despite the fact that the productions share more differences than similarities. Secondly, I doubt that people in White-majority America and Europe are ready for a production where the protagonist is a Korean/non-White. For this reason alone, I would advise the producers of Tears of Heaven to cast Kim Junsu in the Broadway run as well. At the very least, his Korean and Japanese fans will sell out every show and fly over to watch it (again), there by increasing the musical’s chances of a good reception.
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