Korea as Viewed by 12 Creators

This anthology of twelve short stories, six by Korean artists and six by French, follows the same basic template as Japan As Viewed by 17 Creators, offering brief, impressionistic scenes of contemporary Korean life. Though 17 Creators is a uniformly excellent work, its companion volume is not; the stories run the gamut from pedestrian to brilliant, with the Korean artists making the strongest contributions.

The unevenness of the collection is attributable, in part, to a home field advantage. Artists such as Choi Kyu-sok and Byun Ki-hyun tackle deeper, more penetrating topics than their French counterparts, exploring homelessness (“The Fake Dove”), sexual discrimination and violence (“The Rabbit”), and the decay of traditional social networks (“The Rain That Goes Away Comes Back”). Though the artists’ ambition sometimes outstrips their allocated space, all three stories boast beautiful, detailed artwork that suggests the rhythm and feeling of modern urban life. The French contributions, by contrast, are travelogues of one sort or another: in “Beondegi,” for example, Mathieu Sapin imagines what it would be like for a French-Korean woman to return to her parents’ home country, while in “Letters From Korea,” Igort offers brief descriptions of places he visited in Seoul. The weakest of the collection is Catel’s “Dul Lucie,” an uneventful travel diary filled with observations about “doll-like” and “sensual” Koreans that — in English, at least — leave a bad aftertaste of exoticism. Though the other French artists are not as patronizing, the stories feel shallow; imagine an essay about New York City written by someone who only visited Times Square, and you have some idea of how superficial these artists’ appreciation of Korea seems to be.

Two stories make this collection a worthwhile investment. The first is “Solgeo’s Tree,” by Lee Doo-hoo, in which a monk paints a mural so life-like that birds attempt to perch in its branches. Told with almost no dialogue, the story relies heavily on Lee’s exquisite pen-and-ink drawings to impart its Buddhist moral. The second is “A Rat in the Country of Yong,” Herve Tanquerelle’s playful, wordless story about a mouse visiting Seoul. The surrealistic imagery — skies full of dragon transports, streets filled with animal-eared people, pools inhabited by monstrous carp — and Chaplin-esque physical comedy evoke the strangeness and excitement of visiting a new city without falling into the trap of essentializing its people. Both comics attest to the vitality and richness of the “as viewed by” concept, and suggest what might have emerged from this sometimes insightful, sometimes banal French-Korean collaboration.

This review was originally published on September 6, 2010.

Korea as Viewed by 12 Creators
Edited by Nicholas Finet
Fanfare/Ponent Mon, 222 pp.
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