Chris Gatchalian believes in theatre that doesn’t shy away from blood, urine or semen. Six years in the making, the world premiere of Falling in Time won’t “pull any punches in that regard,” the playwright warns.
“Those are parts of life and we shouldn’t be afraid to include them in our plays,” he says of his piece, inspired by the year he worked as an ESL instructor in Vancouver. “It is actually a very brutally honest depiction of these people’s lives,” he continues, referring to the piece’s four characters: proud, anti-Western, South Korean student Chang Hyun; his grandmother, Eun Ha, an ethereal presence and a narrative guide of the play’s action; Steve, the belligerently offensive, fraught American war vet; and the taut, unsympathetic ESL teacher, Jamie.
The action’s looming, non-human character is the Forgotten War, the 1950s Korean conflict that hardened the political divisions between North and South, a still-unresolved relic of the Cold War. Reflecting the more than half-century rift between the two Koreas, Falling in Time’s characters, particularly the men, are spiritually frayed.
The memory of the war torments Steve (Allan Morgan), who tries to forget its internalized ravages through drink and “having sex left, right and centre — with men and women,” Gatchalian says, while Jamie (Kevin Kraussler) is still reeling and stunted from childhood trauma.
Transported from the expectations of a tradition-steeped, but changing, mid-1990s South Korea to the Western individualism of Vancouver, protagonist Chang Hyun (Nelson Wong) is torn because he’s being made to reckon with his repressed sexuality and new challenges to his culturally received sense of self.
“There’s a sense of an awakening in Chang Hyun that he resists,” says Wong. As hard as it was in Korea without the freedom to explore and express his sexuality, he was able “within the muteness to disappear,” he elaborates. “But to see hard evidence of sexuality in action, and to be participant in it, is a much stronger temptation for him in Vancouver — and he’s very resentful of it in many ways. He’s very much in love with his country; there are elements of his family background which inform his hatred of Americans — and that comes along in the Korean War storyline — and some of the abuses his family faced during that time,” Wong says. “He attributes a lot of negative sexuality to American influence.” And yet there’s a part of him that wants to emerge, because he’s tired of repressing it.
“It’s interesting playing Chang Hyun because he isn’t any one voice; he’s very much the voice of his ego, and the voice of his body, and the voice of his soul,” Wong says.
For Gatchalian, Chang Hyun showcases a character that is much more complex and sexual than most mainstream depictions of Asian men, particularly gay Asian men. They are usually portrayed as geeks and are completely desexualized, he says.
Falling in Time deals extensively with Asian, specifically Korean, attitudes toward homosexuality, Gatchalian adds. Wong, who is Chinese, says he’s lived with the Chang Hyun character for four years and identifies with his conflicts.
“Chang Hyun’s struggles with self-hatred and shame and juggling family expectations and family duty are things I definitely relate to, especially as an Asian Canadian. He’s Korean, but these issues are prevalent in the Asian-Canadian community, the gay Asian community.
“For me when I was coming out, it was a very long process, but I did have an understanding of my attraction to men, however much I tried to repress it,” Wong says. “Chang Hyun is going through the same sense-of-duty motions that he believes, almost in a superstitious way, will help cure him. He’s given family obligations and sort of a checklist of ideals: if he works hard, if he is loyal to his family and if he is prosperous, then maybe he can be perfect or pure or good. He’s a very interesting character in that he deals with his self-hatred and shame. Chris has provided a staging ground where we as an audience and Chang Hyun really get to explore why he connects with people and when.”
“I think all the gay male characters in this play are pretty well-rounded; they’re not stereotypical, and the depiction of gay life is something not a lot of people have seen before,” Gatchalian notes — and leaves it at that.
In refusing to “shy away” from the darkest aspects of the characters’ sexual and emotional lives, Gatchalian says, he met with resistance from producers who liked the play but found aspects of it, such as male victims of sexual abuse, too risqué. “We’re just coming around as a society to talking about that issue, so I think the fact that it is explicit made a lot of producers quite wary,” Gatchalian says.
The story of one of his Korean ESL students, who was sexually assaulted while serving in the military, was the seed for Falling in Time. “I was the first person he could talk to about it, and it was only here in Canada he could talk about it with some degree of openness,” Gatchalian recalls.
Many forms of sexuality are expressed in the play, Wong adds: abusive sexuality, egocentric compulsion, and vulnerable and intimate communion. “Chang Hyun really gets to explore different ways of being himself through the language of sex.”
For director Seán Cummings, the play’s explicit sexuality allows the characters to act out their fear and turmoil. Cummings doesn’t subscribe to the popular belief that sex affects everything. “I think everybody affects our sex,” he contends. “I think when you’ve been damaged, violated or hurt on a sexual level, you have to act it out; it always seems, at least for a period of time, you either have to be the victim or the predator.”
Men have deep-rooted fears of being assaulted, he says. “One could argue that one of the major causes of homophobia is a fear of being victimized; it’s fear of being penetrated, it’s fear of being humiliated.” But Cummings wonders why society finds the idea of men being penetrated a dirty thing, when women are penetrated “as a natural course of events in life.”
Cummings says Falling in Time’s central question revolves around the role the fear of the feminine — as politically loaded as that construct is — plays in war and aggression. “What I mean is the male perception of vulnerability: it means the fear of being vulnerable, not being able to be vulnerable, and not understanding why,” he elaborates.
Chang Hyun’s relationships with Steve and Jamie give him the opportunity to play different roles, Wong notes. “As much as he’s afraid of the feminine, afraid of acceptance, afraid of awareness, afraid of vulnerability, there are opportunities where he’s given permission to be, and even [finds] strength in those very qualities.” But coming from a culture where men undertake compulsory military service, Chang Hyun has been immersed in a sense of needing to be strong and needing to take action, Wong reminds.
On a lot of levels, it’s the male story, Cummings agrees. “We have a tendency that we respect the masculine because it’s strong, safer, more simple for a lot of people. You just walk this line and do this thing and this is honour. And this is going to win you respect, wars, children, women, pleasure and power.”
But if the power of the feminine is not embraced, then half of who you are is shameful, he observes.
“I think we do need to move towards a more conciliatory, more accommodating, more open, more accepting way of living and being than what we’ve been accustomed to in the past,” Gatchalian asserts. “The whole play is about falling, and by falling, we mean just surrendering and letting go.”