Book review: Cheon Myeong-kwan — Modern Family

Modern FamilyCheon Myeong-kwan: Modern Family
Translated by Kyoung-lee Park
White Pine Press Korean Voices Series, 2015
Originally published as 고령화 가족 by Munhakdongne Publishing Corp, 2010

The KCC has been running its Korean Literature Nights for more than two years now. The discussion group has an enthusiastic and regular following, to the extent that seats have to be allocated on a lottery basis. LKL has never been able to attend thus far, but the appearance in May of Cheon Myeong-kwan at Asia House and elsewhere, and the fortuitous selection of his book Modern Family as the subject for April, gave the impetus for us to try it for the first time. We were lucky enough to have our name pulled out of the electronic hat.

Would I have read Modern Family if it had not been for Cheon’s appearance in London? To this the answer is no: there are so many other Korea-related books, fiction and non-fiction, that are pressing for my attention that this one would not have got to the top of my reading pile any time soon. Am I glad I read it? Yes, and even gladder that I went to the Korean Literature Night at which it was discussed. Would I recommend it to anyone else? The book club: yes; the book itself: well, read on (though beware spoilers).

The story centres on In-mo, a failed, middle aged, film director who has fallen on hard times. If this is beginning to sound like the scenario of a Hong Sang-soo movie, be patient. Our hero decides his only option for financial survival is to move in with his aged mother who scrapes a living by selling cosmetics door to door in a down-at-heel part of town. He finds his elder brother, an oversized thug known as Hammer, has already moved in, and his adulterous sister and her daughter are not far behind. Despite their poverty, the grandmother somehow provides three hot meals a day for her grown-up family who have come back to share her poor nest. There’s plenty of opportunity for comedy as the well-drawn characters play out their traits.

The story is told as a first person narrative. We see the events unfold through In-mo’s eyes and we are naturally pre-disposed to share his views of the characters. Hammer is a grotesque, farting lump of a man as In-mo tells the story, and at first we have no reasons to think otherwise as he behaves according to type.

Our narrator engages us in conversation, getting us to collude with him: “I’m not going to talk about my ex-wife right now” he tells us. “What a nightmare she must have been,” we tut. But ultimately he does, and when he does we begin to see just what a shit he is. And the other characters, whom we have seen through his hostile, jaded eyes, surprise us with their behaviour – we see warmth and humanity in them. Maybe they are not so bad after all. In fact, we find that they have always sacrificed themselves for their brother In-mo, the educated one, who has actually made a movie and hopefully will make another one soon. As we get fed more information about his family, our feelings towards the ungrateful hero change radically.

Cheon Myeong-kwan’s character drawing, and the way he plays with our attitudes to those characters, is skilful. In addition, there’s plenty of humour, interesting plot twists and unexpected revelations to maintain our interest: your archetypal TV drama has two seemingly unconnected people falling in love only to find that they are half-brother / sister. Here, we progressively find that this nuclear family is not as close-knit by blood as we might have thought initially.

At the talk in Asia House as part of their annual festival of Asian Literature, Cheon explained some of the themes that interest him as a writer. Coming from one of the lower rungs in Korean society he claims never to have met a college graduate till he was 30 years old. His stories are about the lower levels of society that he knows, and he draws inspiration from the realist writers of the 1980s democratisation movement – writers that he says are not much read or appreciated any more. He aims to give a voice to characters who are not from the elite, to bring them to life in a way that portrays them in an affectionate manner, while also bringing in humour and elements of the grotesque.

Phillip Kim, Deborah Smith, Cheon Myeong-kwan, Han Yujoo
Phillip Kim, Deborah Smith, Cheon Myeong-kwan, Han Yujoo and interpreter, at Asia House on 10 May

His predilection for the grotesque, reinforced by his background as a scriptwriter in Korea’s famously genre-bending film industry, explains some of the strange plot twists in what starts off as a family-oriented drama. Gangsters, a serial killer and a brutal torture scene threaten to take us into Asia Extreme territory. And just as the central character in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy manages to secure and unexpected future for himself, so In-mo, having hit rock bottom, is rescued by a deus ex machina and seems to have the opportunity to live happily ever after. Similarly, his other family members in their own way are permitted to find happiness.

This is obviously a conscious decision by the author: at the talk in Asia House Cheon said that for those without money “living in Korea is painful every day”. And while much of the talk about Hell Joseon over past 12 months has focused on the bleak prospects of the younger generation, in Cheon’s view all generations “face a dark future” and “don’t know where to go”. Giving his characters a happy ending at least gives some escapism to the reader. Specifically in Modern Family, in which three generations face their daily struggles under the same roof, we find that even when you are surrounded by poverty there is still the possibility of human decency, warmth and affection – though this fact largely passes In-mo by for most of the novel. In-mo, who is avidly reading his way through the collected works of Hemingway during the course of the novel – as did Cheon in his 20s, enjoying the strong narrative lines and the focus of the attention on the actions of the heroic protagonist – struggles to emulate the Hemingway protagonists: he himself is largely inert, and when he does take action it usually misfires – as for example when he decides to take matters into his own hands with the serial killer.

So this is a comic but dark family drama with elements of warmth and with a strangely violent final third. The story flashes by, aided by a translation that feels natural. For me though the novel is strangely elusive: within a day or two of getting to the end, I found that it had almost faded from my memory. When the day of the book club came, the moderator’s questions for discussion arrived in my email inbox and I really struggled to answer them. But when the evening of the book club arrived fortunately the people around the table had plenty of ideas and the moderator, writer and translator Daniel Hahn, was skilful in leading the conversation.

Thanks to Daniel Hahn and to Phillip Kim who ably steered the evening at Asia House. And the Literature Nights at the KCC can be highly recommended.


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