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Petal essay contest Salon des Refusés 3

Peter Corbishley offers his entry into the “There a Petal Silently Falls” essay competition.

A Korean novella – a human tragedy

Choe Yun
Choe Yun
It is unnerving to have images from a half-recollected film1 play through a reading of There a Petal Silently Falls.2 Yet that sense of disorientation evocatively models how the girl’s bewildered spirit-awareness3 interweaves, recalls and layers naturalistic accounts with impressions, metaphors and flashbacks. Suffering too causes our recognition of who am I, of who we are, to fade in and out.4 Will a brother recognise the face of his sister? A mother the face of her daughter? Can we face ourselves? The black curtain falls.5 The train of memory rides into the night.6

Focused like a movie camera on the face of her dying mother, the girl’s spirit-awareness presents the Kwangju massacre7 from the ‘inside.’ ‘Outside’ there are three sections that outline the bewildered violence of Chang, the construction worker.8 Then, a further three ‘outside’ sections sketch the more empathetic concerns of the Korean ‘우리’ : the friends of Brother,9 Kim10 and especially the Okpo woman.11 Not surprisingly then, the formal ten divisions in the text do not carry the novella forward from beginning to end. 12

A three-leaved Madeup knot
A three-leaved Madeup knot

Rather, the three scenarios running alongside each other embody a searing critique, for Choe Yun embroiders them together like a three leaved decorative knot.13 The Kwangju massacre, with its genesis in the environmentally destructive push for economic growth14 and the hesitations and suppressed suffering of Kim and friends, is not an embellishment on Korean history. Now the traditional colours of the knot are bundled15 together in the maroon, or reddish purple, dress bought to celebrate the harvest moon festival. In the traditional Korean colour system, too, red means the sun-filled geographical south.16 Yet Kwangju, the city to the south, is hidden in the darkness by the black curtain that appears at the moment of Mama’s death. The dancing and faces of the crowd and the mother17 too are in violent contrast to the traditional folk plays wherein ‘the Korean smile’18 stood for welcome and hospitality. Kwangju is a living contradiction to what it is to be Korean.

Yangban Tal Mask
Yangban Tal Mask

Just as the embroidering of Korean knots begins and ends at the centre,19 so pp3-4 centre on the themes for the unmasking of Kwangju. The thread of the girl’s search for the grave of her brother appears in the first sentence where the graves “scattered” throughout the city belong to the dead of Kwangju. A second thread is the girl herself with her “wound”, her “withered garland,” her “crimson smile,” her lips with “a chaos of purple lipstick.” A third thread ties us to gazing at her crimson smile and painted purple cheeks, and to asking whether we recognise her face. Throughout, like spectators at the cinema, we are staring at her face and later the faces of the crowd at Kwangju. We are invited, too, to distance ourselves from the thugs, “clubs in their hands,”20 who attacked those crowds. For the suffering21 they endured in “A certain year, a certain month, a certain day. Exactly three in the afternoon22 is Christ-like.

In the text that follows there are a further twenty references to the girl’s ‘smile’ described as chilling, idiotic, sardonic, darkened, vacuous, peculiar, ambiguous, mocking. It is a smile difficult to recognise for it is hovering, incipient, fleeting, and light. For Chang, the construction worker it is a smile from the past. It is easier then to rape a girl23whose smile, if he could call it that, came from a world he didn’t understand.”24 The spirit-awareness of the girl, too, cannot recognise herself, for as she looks on she sees her own face become monstrous. “The smiling face had darkened and shrivelled, the hair had lost its flower, the ruddy cheeks were once more cavernous.”25 Above the smile are the mere slits of eyes that cannot focus on anything because they are full of sand. This face, bereft of welcome, is also that face of the mother that becomes twisted, ugly, frightening as she is filled with holes from the bullets. It is not the face on the photo of our friend’s sister, or a face that Brother would recognise.

Just as the friends have a photograph, so the girl sees the face of her mother and the faces of the crowd at Kwangju in “the photos that keep dancing in front of me, clicking like a movie projector.”26 Then comes the photomontage : “Screaming faces. Faces falling to the ground. Menacing assaulting faces. Bloody faces. Shouting faces. Denuded faces. Faces twitching like fish out of water. Faces that disappeared silently. Faces pursued. Glaring faces. Shouting faces… Common faces forever hardened. Smashed faces. Faceless faces.”27 Then the faces outside the city hear the rumours carried by “drawn, anguished faces … faces more vivid … ( a few of which) harboured a volatile, pulse–stopping anxiety – the faces of people28 who wanted to know about what had happened to their families. And again as the story twists back to the massacre “Gleaming faces became twisted, torn, flipped back, were thrown to the pavement in a heap. They were dyed with blood, bright red blood.29

This crimson flowering of ‘facial’ blood takes us back to colours of the opening two pages. In her spirit-awareness, too, the girl repeatedly returns to the massacre, presented in and through the death of Mama.30 She recalls two contrasting smells. First, “everywhere there was the sweet scent of a flower.”31 So, she remembers the sweet smell of the fresh single flower in her hair, of the city before the police and army action. “But there was something else in the air, something sharp and painful.”31 She breathes in the “bitter stinging smell,”32 the “poison gas,”33 which she then carries inside herself.34 But it is “this” single flower and this dress, Kwangju before the massacre, that Brother will recognise.35

Royal Azalea - Symbol of Kwangju Metropolitan City
Royal Azalea - Symbol of Kwangju Metropolitan City

After Kwangju, however, this flower is now a withered, dying flower that gives us ‘the’ single petal of the English title of the book. In fact, just as in the shift from ‘face’ to ‘faces’ discussed above, Korean grammar allows a flower or flowers, according to context. And now the context is death : fallen petals stand in for the fallen faces of Kwangju. The girl, as recognised by the construction worker, is the city where her “unhealed wounds,”28 mindless laughter and empty personality, frame, amplify and detail the massacre. She uses funeral bouquets to place individual flowers on other gravestones.36 Her “withered garland,”37 ready for the friends of brother on the first page, becomes “a withered flower38 for a Brother on the last. The Chuseok ritual remains to be done.38

Seemingly all we are left with is a petal, a dying flower. But there is a solidarity in suffering as “perhaps all suffering follows the same course” and “people’s histories cannot help colouring each other.”39 The genius of the book masses events and metaphors of events with a directness and an indirectness that call out for the “mutual recognition39 that Kwangju is the inverse of the human. From the beginning, we too long for the “sunlight,”40 while the girl in the maroon dress asserts that “Someday I’ll return when the black curtain lifts and I can love myself without reservation.”41

  1. A Petal (꽂잎) (1996) Director Jang Sun-woo []
  2. There a petal silently falls p3-78 in (2008) Three stories by Ch’oe Yun, Columbia University Press: New York. []
  3. “To grasp the wanderings of the girl’s spirit, for which language had ceased to function, we had to rely on a complex logic. To pinpoint her peculiar journey we had to enter inside of her, remain with her, follow the dictates of her mind.” p23 Choe Yun op cit. []
  4. The novella is therefore a further exploration of the Korean experience of ‘han.’ []
  5. The story has some 25 references to this curtain. []
  6. Cf p51, 53 ibid. []
  7. May 18TH to 27TH 1980 []
  8. The geographical references make clear that Chang works on the Taechong dam on the Kum river completed in 1980. Chang is also a metaphor for the drive to the Korean economic miracle pushing political and social events towards Kwangju. []
  9. The death of the brother represents the army coup d’etat in the December of 1979 – “the long winter vacation passed without Brother” p64 Choe Yun op cit – that in turn points to the political illegitimacy of the regime as a further genesis for the massacre. []
  10. The girl recognises and calls out the painful history Kim has pushed deep inside himself. Cf p45-6 ibid []
  11. This woman underlines the gendered sympathy of the story. In Korean history too ‘Okpo’ has hopeful associations as where General Yi won the first battle of the Imjin wars against Japan in 1592. []
  12. In this schema CW = the construction worker, SoC = the girl, and W the ‘we’ or ‘우리’

        Pages Realities Sequence Locations
      1 04-11 CW 1 outside
      2 11-18 SoC 2 inside
      3 18-24 W 3 outside
      4 24-35 SoC 2 inside
      5 35-39 CW 1 outside
      6 39-48 W 3 outside
      7 48-54 SoC 2 inside
      8 54-62 CW 1 outside
      9 62-73 SoC 2 inside
      10 73-78 W 3 outside


  13. Maedeup (매듭) decorative knot making is intangible cultural property number 22. 매듭 장인 is a three leaved version of one of the many knots that form part of this tradition. It often used red, crimson and purplish colours. []
  14. “Afterwards he (the construction worker) would find that those wounds were everywhere visible – in the infinite sky, in the riverside sandbanks, in a bowl of rice, and later in the girl’s healed flesh.” p11 Choe Yun op cit. cf “Dams have made an important and significant contribution to the nation’s economic development, and the benefits derived from them have been enormous. However, in too many cases, unacceptable and often unnecessary high price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities on surrounding area, by taxpayers and by natural environment.” (accessed 10/10/09). []
  15. Cf p7, p10, p22, p56, p76 Choe Yun op cit. []
  16. Cf The Obangsaek. Other associations of red are summer, fire, the heart, bitterness, pleasure and propriety. Red is also a colour used by Shamans suggesting the role of the girl as a shaman initiate who understands the depth of the suffering of Kim. Cf p45-6 ibid. []
  17. Cf p10, 12, 16, 33, 69, 70, 71 ibid. []
  18. The mask Yangban Tal represents Korean smile and hospitality, although it can also be used to show anger. The Yangban Tal is considered as the zenith of mask art. Hahoe masks were used in the Hahoe Mask Dance Dramas. []
  19. “There are thirty-three basic types of Korean knots, each of a different shape. However, all knots have a vertical continuous structure that begins at the center and ends at the center.” (accessed 10/10/09). []
  20. p29 Choe Yun op cit. []
  21. Cf “Intense suffering” p21, “a pent-up swirl of suffering” p45 ibid. []
  22. p4 ibid, we have just moved into section 1. []
  23. Cf p7 ibid but also in the references to the bluebirds that enter and peck at her cf p32, p35 ibid that in turn become the helicopters of the massacre p69 ibid. []
  24. p6 ibid. []
  25. p51 ibid. []
  26. p12 ibid. []
  27. p21 ibid. []
  28. p55 ibid. [] []
  29. p7 ibid. []
  30. Cf pp 12-17, 26-28, 33, 63-72 ibid. []
  31. p65 ibid. [] []
  32. p69 ibid. []
  33. p49 ibid. []
  34. Cf “It put my insides in turmoil, it penetrated my brain and stuck there.”p69 ibid. She “made her presence known by a foul odour” p9 ibid. ”her harsh breathing produced a poisonous stink” p11 ibid and “I clamped my mouth dead shut. Because suddenly I was afraid of what might creep out: a foul-smelling liquid, dark green beetles, reptiles with shiny skins. The more tightly I shut my mouth, the worse some of those people attacked me. ….I let out that air was a poison gas in my lungs. They must have thought I was laughing.”p49 ibid Then in the text we move on the interrogations of the demonstrators. []
  35. Cf p65 ibid. []
  36. p60 ibid. []
  37. p3 ibid. []
  38. p78 ibid. [] []
  39. p46 ibid. [] []
  40. p4 ibid. []
  41. p35 ibid. []

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