Jaha Koo in Cuckoo. Pic: Radovan Dranga

Festivals, Stage

Cuckoo review (OzAsia Fest, Adelaide)

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Cuckoo is a meditation on South Korean society over the 22 years since the Asian Financial Crisis, told in part by three rice cookers. It is hard to imagine a theatre piece narrated by rice cookers. But in sixty well-chosen minutes writer, performer and composer Jaha Koo raises life issues and explores political and economic questions that are far from light and fluffy.

Named for the Cuckoo rice cooker, South Korea’s most familiar household item (with a market share of 74% for the past 17 years) Koo’s performance is invoking a national icon whose brand name has become a by-word in his country – like hoover, biro or glad wrap.

The cookers have names – Duri, Hana (the red one) and Seri – and they do more than announce that the rice is done. They deliver part of Jaha Koo’s TED-like lecture on the social crisis in his country and for his generation especially. They are also tangible metaphors for a society in its own, constantly rising pressure cooker.

Born in 1984 – as he observes, not long after Nam June Paik’s pioneering video art installation Good Morning Mr Orwell – Koo describes the events of the late 1990s, when he was still a young teenager, and South Korean television announced National Humiliation Day, not at the hands of the wartime Japanese, but the International Monetary Fund.

He talks about the epidemic of suicide in South Korea. One person dies every 37 minutes.

When South Korea signed the IMF bailout of $58 billion it agreed to austerity measures, the removal of trade protections, and rises in interest rates as high as 24% – driving many Korean banks and manufacturing industries into bankruptcy. This also led to voracious raids on Korean companies from foreign corporate raiders. Goldman Sachs was advising the IMF, banks and financial institutions were taken over by US companies, manufacturers like the car makers Daewoo became part of General Motors.

Cuckoo uses a video screen with news clips of events related to the crisis. We see archive footage of mass violent demonstrations in Korea throughout this century, the press conferences by US officials, and the extraordinary national effort by Korean citizens to donate their personal gold collections to repay the debt. There is also banter between, and music performed by, the rice cookers, and Jaha Koo’s low key, often mournful description of these events and their long-term effects on him and his friends.

He talks about the epidemic of suicide in South Korea. One person dies every 37 minutes. He has lost six friends from his own circle. He focuses on one in particular, Jerry. They were close teenage friends but had drifted apart in adulthood. Jerry married and had a child, he was struggling with employment, he had money worries.

When Jerry calls him inviting him to visit, Koo agrees. But, on the day, there is a torrential rainstorm in Seoul and he decides to stay indoors. Jerry later calls him, distressed. Koo can hear him quarrelling with his wife. At some point after this Jerry jumps to his death from his balcony. It is his birthday. Koo plays us some music he wrote to commemorate his friend. The rice cookers also perform a song, a sombre lament – “Wah woo wa. My heart is making rice to death.” It is a strange and bitter elegy.

The presentation is divided into numbered sections. Number Three is named after Robert Rubin. He was Treasury Secretary in the Clinton Administration, formerly from Goldman Sachs – talking platitudes about the IMF in South Korea being good economics and good politics. Earlier, Koo had shown us video footage of his daughter-in-law, Gretchen Rubin, famous on the self-help circuit with her pet motivational spruik – The Happiness Project.

Jaha Koo refers repeatedly to spaces in Korean society where people are “isolated without help”. That is where Jerry was on his balcony. It also applies in the section he calls Screen Door. When so many South Korean citizens were jumping in front of subway trains, protective screens were installed to prevent anyone near the platform’s edge. They only opened briefly when the trains stopped to pick up passengers. Not just mind the gap, no chance of a gap at all.

Cuckoo is both grimly factual and a personal witness to social and economic imperatives that are soul-destroying and eventually lethal. And they are not confined to South Korea.

He describes the experience of a 19-year-old maintenance technician named Kim, called out to repair faulty screens not opening at multiple station sites. Because the repairs could only be done between train stops he had to work fast and time his completion precisely. A first screen was repaired, then a second, but he was called to yet another. There were delays getting there, then a momentary hesitation finding a cloth to clean the sensor mechanism. Running behind schedule, Kim was killed instantly by the incoming train. As Koo wearily observes – “what kind of society is it where someone has to jump into his death to make the world go round.”

Cuckoo concludes with more of Jaha Koo’s sombre synthesised music while a rice cooker repeats snippets of statements we have heard earlier. At the same time Koo is frenetically taking handfuls of cooked rice and mashing them into square dishes, making single-serve pucks ready to eat. He stacks them high on top of each other then places a tiny rice figure teetering on the edge. The rice cookers are talking like polite kitchen daleks – Did you eat well? Please stir the rice.

Cuckoo is both grimly factual and a personal witness to social and economic imperatives that are soul-destroying and eventually lethal. And they are not confined to South Korea. This intelligent, emotionally compelling production is as provocative as it is strange. Jaha Koo not only artfully stirs the rice, he stirs the pot as well.

Cuckoo played the Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, October 25-26.

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