Let me tell you about the latest offering at the Theater of the Absurd.
A 70-year-old grandpa used to be the personal driver for a man whom he fondly calls “The Chairman.” Said chairman is dead and gone, but memories of his benevolence continue to drive (pun unintended) the behavior of his former employee. If not for the chairman’s generosity, what would the grandpa have become? A hobo? But because the chairman provided for the grandpa and his family, the grandpa has sworn permanent servitude upon himself. Just look at his thrall-like behavior around the chairman’s descendants.
The chairman’s son (let’s call him Chairman Junior) treats the driver with as much disdain as he would a faulty golf club, tossing him away one day for the flimsiest of reasons. Why Chairman Junior hates Mr. Chauffeur is unclear and may never be known. In the Theater of the Absurd, there’s no need to explain anything.
Abruptly fired, does the driver get angry with his ex-boss? Do dogs bear grudges?
So Grandpa invites himself to the wedding of Chairman Junior’s daughter, because on a momentous occasion such as this, how can he bear to stay away? Surely The Departed Chairman would want his trusty driver to be around, to partake in the joy, to help ensure everything proceeds at a trot.
Not only that, every member of Grandpa’s family must attend the wedding. Refuse and risk getting chewed, for Grandpa runs his household like a military camp. He barks “Attention!” and his son and daughter-in-law jump, dropping everything they are doing. It’s like a game of Freeze minus the fun. It’s also highly disturbing, to see an old man so docile before his employer and so despotic at home. Houston, we have issues.
The tyrant’s son, whose hair has turned whiter than his dad’s on account of all the verbal and physical abuse he has had to suffer his whole life, runs a small car repair workshop next to their house. On this day, his wife is busy at home, having just wallpapered a room recently vacated by a tenant. She is a bundle of nervous excitement. Her precious son is returning from studies abroad and she is readying the room for his use. Furniture has been ordered, paid for by two years of wages doing menial work. She has also bought beef–a delicacy in this frugal household–which she plans to cook into a delectable dish for her son.
The only problem is… the tyrant has no idea his daughter-in-law has gone on this buying splurge.
Furniture yet to be delivered can remain a secret, for now, but meat must eventually be cooked and eaten, so how do you stow it away from the head of the house?
The meat is discovered, a storm erupts (punctuated by a long lecture on the health benefits of cheap tofu), and the daughter-in-law is a picture of abject misery as she returns the beef to the restaurant where she bought it. (Yes, she didn’t buy the meat from a butcher but from a restaurateur. That can happen when your father-in-law oppresses you so much you can’t tell right from left, one trade from another.)
Dragged to a garden wedding they don’t want to attend, the son and daughter-in-law look as chirpy as roadkill. Upon arrival, Mr. Auto Mechanic immediately gets into an altercation with Chairman Junior. The latter declares that he does not remember inviting them to the proceedings and then orders Mr. Chauffeur to help direct incoming traffic and be valet for the guests (all invited, of course).
“My dad’s no longer your employee, you jerk!” the son yells, to no avail, because self-imposed serfdom isn’t something you can eradicate with mere flailing of arms and expletives. Nothing but a brain transplant will do.
As the ex-driver meekly performs his duties, oblivious to his son’s protests, the daughter-in-law is stuffing herself (mouth and bag) with enough food to feed a platoon. Meanwhile, Chairman Junior’s wife, her girly hairdo making her look like a sixteen-year-old with Botox-resistant wrinkles, has gone in search of her soon-to-be-wedded daughter. The wedding’s about to begin, but where are the bride and groom?
It turns out the bride is giving last-minute instructions on obeisance to her groom-to-be.
At her insistence, he hops like a frog with his hands on his ears, and signs (in lipstick, not blood) on a piece of paper that he will always be her slave or risk an early death. (Are we beginning to see a theme here?) The smitten guy complies with nary a whimper, because even though this is a marriage meant to enrich two already well-heeled families, never let it be said that the pair aren’t deeply in love. “I love you,” she whispers in his ears, the unofficial nuptial agreement tucked between gown and bosom, thus providing additional padding for this happiest of days.
Successful wedding over, the couple (who funnily have not changed out of their wedding finery) zip off in his car, but not before Mr. Former Chauffeur gives a small package of something-that’s-supposed-to-dispel-travel-sickness-but-looks-like-a-bag-of-stones to the bride.
“Harabojjjjiii,” she croons, suddenly behaving like a child of three and tempting you to stick a pacifier into her mouth. Tenderness literally drips from his every pore as he gazes at her, this beloved granddaughter of Beloved Chairman. So all-consuming is his devotion to this family, it’s no wonder he has no affection left for his own kin.
On the way to the airport, the groom (henceforth called The Cad; you’ll understand why shortly, and it’s not because the actor’s being typecast here) receives an urgent phone call from his mom. He learns that his father-in-law‘s company has gone into receivership and that the marriage (and honeymoon) is a no-go. Apparently “till bankruptcy do us part” is the new operative for chaebols.
While he’s on the phone, Chairman Junior is calling his daughter in a panic. (Note: In the Theater of the Absurd, two people sitting next to each other in a stationary car can’t talk on their cell phones simultaneously; the car might explode otherwise. One must step outside to receive the call, never mind the risk of getting run over in the process.)
She steps out of the car and learns from her frantic father about his business woes. He urges her to cling hard to her new husband; it’s the only way to help tide her dad over during the crisis.
However, The Cad, who’s officially not her husband yet because they have not registered the marriage, has now received an ultimatum from his dad: “Come home at once or lose your inheritance.” His bride issues her own “I’m counting to three and you have to decide it’s me or your family” ultimatum, but The Cad drives off.
As the car speeds away, Jilted Bride hurls her phone at it and then proceeds to sit in a heap on the road, wailing her head off and tearing her petticoat out from beneath her gown. At first appearance the petticoat destruction seems rage-driven, but then she gets up and walks and we realize she’s actually leaving a trail of petticoat shreds behind her, just in case she needs to return to the spot where she got dumped. How clever.
Jilted Bride, now shoeless because the smartest thing to do when one is abandoned on a highway is to walk barefooted on the hot asphalt, hails a cab finally. The cab cuts into the path of a bus, forcing the latter to stop abruptly. The bus passengers curse at the near-miss and then realize the cab had stopped to pick up a disheveled woman in a wedding gown, her mascara-streaked face a sight. To think that they had almost been killed because of a lunatic!
On the bus is Mr. Former Chauffeur’s grandson. Fresh off the plane, instead of going home where his mom awaits with tofu (not beef), he’s headed for a hospital where a Very Special Person works. Glancing out the bus at the crazy woman dressed as a bride, he shudders.
Two years of studies abroad and all Fresh Graduate brings back is one piece of luggage that seems surprisingly light from the effortless way he carries it around. Maybe it’s empty?
Turns out the guy does not believe in weighty gifts because all he presents to VIP when he sees her is the stub of his plane ticket. Perhaps he thinks that her work as a doctor affords her the time to do scrapbooking and she will preserve that ticket stub as a special memory of him.
Alas, VIP displays a distinct lack of pleasure at seeing him, her mind very much occupied by a certain senior doctor with whom she seems to be carrying on a clandestine relationship. How do we know? Well, they are touchy-feely when they think no one is looking, and they plan dinner dates which he then cancels because his daughter insists on meeting him. Strung along thus in this uncertain coupling, it’s no wonder VIP wears a scowl that ages her ten years.
Unfazed by VIP’s coldness, blinded-by-love Fresh Graduate walks cheerily to a bus stop and is stunned to see Crazy Woman sitting there.
Let’s backtrack a bit. Determined not to go home to the father who has ruined her life, Jilted Bride calls Haraboji aka Grandpa aka Mr. Former Chauffeur on her broken but still functioning phone. Unfortunately, the old man has gone to the grave of Dear Late Chairman to congratulate him on his granddaughter’s nuptials. Since ringing cell phones might disturb the dead in their repose, he has thoughtfully not brought his phone along.
Jilted Bride leaves a tearful message about being dumped by The Cad. She’s out of money and the only person who can give her some is her older sister, VIP. Yes, that one. But VIP (henceforth called Cold Fish) seems unwilling to help.
So you see, that’s how Fresh Grad and Jilted Bride end up at the same bus stop, not realizing they are headed in the same direction (he’s going home and she wants to look for Haraboji).
She asks if he knows what bus she should take to get to this particular bus station and he lies that he doesn’t know. Then his bus arrives and he quickly hops on it, but she gets on, too. She tries to pay the fare with Haraboji’s bag of whateverthatis, but the kindly driver, no stranger to weirdos, declines her payment.
Everyone on the bus prays silently that Crazy Woman will not sit next to them and Fresh Grad even puts his empty luggage on the seat beside him as a sign that the seat is taken. She sits next to him anyway and chides him for fibbing and not helping a bride in distress. Already stick-thin, Fresh Grad compresses himself into a vertical line so that their bodies will not touch and pretends to sleep.
Jilted Bride gets off at her stop, not knowing where to go from here. Fresh Grad hops off a short distance later (to avoid Crazy Woman) and is soon embraced by his delighted parents at their humble abode. Mom can’t wait to show off the fruit of her labor, now duly outfitted with furniture and bedding not to be sniffed at, and insists that Darling Son make it his new bedroom.
Preferring his basement den, the son protests, but his mother has decided that returning the beef was the last straw; from now on she will defy Dreaded Father-In-Law for the sake of her son’s well-being. She didn’t pay for his education (The Chairman did), but this new bedroom will wash away the years of feeling like a useless mother who can’t provide for her flesh and blood. Still, there’s no need to reveal the truth to the tyrant just yet; why ruin the happy homecoming?
While his mom prepares dinner, the son goes off to the restaurant (the one where beef was bought and returned) to look for his grandfather. (The elderly restaurateur and the granddad are good friends and hang out together frequently.) There, he is flabbergasted to see Crazy Woman chomping away on beef soup. Fortunately for him, the old man is keenly aware that a lunatic might be on his premises and has already called the cops.
So a reunion of sorts takes place at the police station, between a granddad and his bewildered grandson, and between Haraboji and Beloved Granddaughter Of The Chairman.
She falls into Haraboji’s arms, wailing and triggering a fresh flow of mascara down her face. (She had the presence of mind earlier to wipe her dirty feet with the remnants of her petticoat, but she never thought of wiping her face. In distress a woman always thinks of her feet first, of course.)
The sight of her panda eyes is enough to make one crap one’s pants, which Fresh Grad is on the verge of doing… because how in the world does Crazy Woman know Grandpa? (Not: How in the world do the two youngsters not know each other, seeing how their grandfathers are connected?)
Thus ends the first act. Will things get more absurd? Or will a sense of normalcy finally prevail? Stick around after the intermission for the answer.