By Olivia Popp
In one word, “You for Me for You” is haunting. Mia Chung’s new play, produced by San Francisco’s Crowded Fire Theater, tries to make sense of the complex mystery that is North Korea, a country that, to many, evokes a multitude of feelings — fear, confusion, hatred, unsureness, among many. “You for Me for You” plays with the ideas behind truth, record, memory and experience. I walked out of the play feeling less sure about my ability to separate these four concepts, but nonetheless felt like I had a deeper ability to empathize through them.
Mia Chung’s “You for Me for You” tells the story of two North Korean sisters, Junhee (Grace Ng) and Minhee (Kathryn Han), and their lives after Junhee successfully escapes to the United States while Minhee is left behind. As soon as I walked into the theater, a large honeycomb structure hung from the ceiling as the set, the rest of the stage black, stark and bare. Lights glistened off the honeycomb-like pieces, remaining empty but filling the space with a sense of rigidity, order and forced conformity, not unlike the North Korean state in which Junhee and Minhee live.
The juxtaposition between the minimalist design elements of the scenes that take place in North Korea versus the United States were astonishing. Perfectly timed sounds accompanied by directed lighting signified doors, trains and tunnels, without the need for any set pieces at all. Junhee and Minhee return, day after day, to the doctor’s office, and simply by turning around, miming and the sound of a creaking door, showed the passage of time with an eerie sense of grace. On the other hand, Junhee’s life in the U.S. was marked by much more elaborate costume design, set elements and aesthetically-intricate pieces. Junhee’s transition from outsider to American citizen is shown through gibberish spoken by the American characters; she speaks English through the entirety of the play, and as she assimilates, the gibberish becomes increasingly more intelligible. Her characterization develops as she begins as timid, growing more courageous and ambitious in both her social, romantic and work lives, but the reserved, restricted side imposed upon her by her life in North Korea is never truly erased.
In a parallel plot line, Minhee, dragged behind in North Korea as a sacrifice for Junhee’s freedom, navigates an eccentric, magical yet creepy world. Minhee must carry out ridiculous tasks in order to survive, only for the rules to change on a complete whim with absolutely no consistency or reason. This is where Chung’s depiction of North Korean excels — rather than show Minhee rotting away in a jail cell or forced labor, she takes the idea of North Korean law and government on its head, showing how citizens can neither escape nor make their lives any better because of the utter randomness of the decided rules. She is accompanied by cartoon-like bears and suspicious individuals, wary of saying anything that might be interpreted as insulting towards the North Korean government.
Junhee and Minhee’s lives never meet again until the very end of the play. After imagining her life with a new boyfriend, Junhee realizes the incredible life she’s been living in the United States hasn’t been shared by her beloved sister. So she runs back to North Korea to retrieve Minhee, and in a frightening turn of events, instead sacrifices herself with the knowledge that Minhee will be able to live the beautiful life that she herself had lived in the U.S.. Minhee thus lives out her life South Korea as the free sister, while Junhee is left behind in North Korea and is subsequently shot. The way in which the sisters interact upon Junhee’s return is so reminiscent of their attempt to escape the country at the beginning that I was left wondering whether Junhee’s American life and Minhee’s new North Korean one were simply one of many paths that they could’ve taken.
Each of the sisters had experiences dependent upon the choices that they, as well as external forces, made. Despite her fruitless experiences of failing to actually make any tangible impact upon her own life, Minhee still labors away in order to gain a little bit of currency, only to lose it all without any fault of her own. Minhee’s life in North Korea after Junhee escaped was recordless — as punishment for attempting to escape, she was taken away by the North Korean government and forced to perform unnecessary, useless tasks — or was she? Was the cartoon-like world around her all in her mind? Was she actually confined and sentenced to life in a jail cell or, as suggested in the play, the depths of a bottomless well? Was the well metaphorical or simply a manifestation of Minhee’s state of mind? On the other hand, Junhee’s experiences in the U.S. bring her to consider how fortunate her escape was. But the memory of her sister is what drives her back to North Korea. Junhee’s life is meticulously documented and recorded, from her work to photos of her relationships. The truth of Junhee’s life in the US is never questioned — it is deliberate, explicit and completely clear, without any sense of magical realism.
The question of which path was the true path of which sister actually escaped North Korea was not something I needed to be answered. Junhee and Minhee’s own stories and experiences were enough critical consideration of truth for a thousand lifetimes. From a real life lens, “You for Me for You” brought light to the experiences of individuals unable to escape North Korea, with the understanding that what is told to the world may very much differ from the torturous lives they must live in the country. The truth must be taken at face value, and all in all, the truth is relative.
Contact Olivia Popp at opopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.