Korean artist Byun Byung-Jun's poetic manhwa collection Mijeong features seven stories linked by existential wonder, melancholy and magic.
A young man and woman lie in a field on the outskirts of the city. They stare into the sky and watch the snow fall. They've both been shot.
"Hey, are you dead?" asks the young woman. "I'm dreaming of Africa."
Until a few minutes ago, they were strangers--the young man has been searching for his sister, and the young woman was singing a song that only his sister would know. From this chance meeting, a moment of violence ensued, caused by another stranger.
A haunting and understated story, "A Song for You" is the centrepiece of Byun Byung-Jun's second collection, Mijeong. Of the seven stories here, "Song" is the only one in colour, and the muted violet, black, blue and green watercolours add an especially dreamlike, impressionistic atmosphere to Byun's tale.
"Song's" location at the centre of the book seems to underscore its importance in relation to the other stories. This understated and strange story contains themes and motifs that ripple across the entire collection like the waves caused by a pebble dropped into a pond.
There's an echo of the young woman's "are you dead" question in an earlier story, "Yeon-du, seventeen years old," which opens with the words, "Hello, are you still alive?" Although it's considerably longer, "Yeon-du" resembles "Song" in following a chance encounter between a man and a woman, who seem to share a connection that is hinted at but not directly explained. In this case, the woman is the titular teenager, while the man is old enough to be her grandfather. As in "Song," there's a murder, sex, lost love and possibly more than one death.
First published in Korea in 2003, Mijeong appeared in an English translation by ComicsLit in 2009, following the release of Byun's 2007 graphic novel Run, Bong-Gu Run! With this collection, Byun displays his facility with a wide range of subjects and genres while maintaining a consistently poetic tone and producing beautiful artwork. His expressive faces seem to alternate between stunning and enigmatic, while his photo-realistic backgrounds are wonderfully detailed.
With its chance connections and dreamlike imagery, there's a sense of magic suggested in "Song" that recurs throughout the stories. In "Courage, grandfather!" another young man and woman meet by chance, but this time, the emphasis is on the possibility of love. Witnessing their conversation is an old cat ("grandfather") and a kitten, whose voices of protest (the old cat loves the young woman and feels terribly protective of her) we can hear. This also seems to echo Natsume Soseki's classic novel I Am A Cat as well as Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore.
The young man in "Song" is a musician, and his songs drive not only the main plot but also the motivations of his lost sister and the young woman he meets in the field. Two other stories also focus on the strange power of art, specifically manhwa creators. "202, Sinil Villa" is a horror tale in the vein of classic EC comics, twist ending and all, where an artist's work seems to live outside of his pen and paper, and the collection closes with "A short tall tale," in which a manwha creator under deadline takes time to tell a story to a loved one over the phone.
He tells his young listener a folk tale, where a god falls in love with a young woman, and enlists the help of the embodiments of happiness and the flu. They betray the celestial, and vie for the young woman's love. There's a poetic loneliness in the myth, which ends with happiness "alone with the girl," who is in love with another, and doesn't realize her true love is with her forever.
Along with melancholic, chance encounters, many of these stories feature a sense of openness towards life's mysteries. "Utility" follows a group of children who discover a dead body and decide upon a particularly grisly idea for hiding it. The children are clinical and coldly logical in their decision-making, and the main character is a somewhat macabre boy who refuses to believe chickens can't fly. He spends his afternoons throwing freshly-hatched chicks from his apartment window in hopes that his can spark their innate ability to soar.
This story recalls the poem that repeats throughout Wim Wenders' classic film Wings of Desire. The poem and film accord well with Byun's entire collection. For example, these lines:
When the child was a child,
It was the time for these questions:
Why am I me, and why not you?
Why am I here, and why not there?
The connection to Wenders' art-house classic doesn't end there. The book opens with the title story, "Mijeong," which we're told translates from Chinese to mean "pure beauty." This brief, poetic and meditative tale is so inspired by Wings of Desire that it can be thought of as Byun's manwha version of the film.
"If only I could lighten her sorrow," the narrator says. Like Damiel in Wings of Desire, he's a fallen angel in love with a sad young woman. "For weary lovers, love seems distant. But they'll endure it all."
There's a feeling of restlessness and sadness in every story here. When Byun finally addresses the reader directly (in a note that closes the collection), he writes: "I've been drawing manhwas for some time now, but I feel like I'm going in circles. I see no progress, except for that or worries...[This book] totally reflects my current state of mind: eternally hesitant, I feel like I'm stuck in an impasse." While his candor is striking, he seems to be too harsh a judge of his work. The collection has an understated cohesion, and there's a feeling of the book being greater than the sum of its parts.
One of the strangest aspects of the book is its afterward, written by "comics specialist" and "webzine" editor Kim Nak-Ho. Primarily positive and insightful, it ends on a note of criticism that seems odd. "[C]ertain defects are still perceptible, which he should correct," Kim writes. By placing this at the very end of the book, it seems to leave readers with a sense that Byun's overall project has failed, somehow. Given the melancholy qualities of his stories, that oddly depressing sensation isn't entirely inappropriate.
However, the best way to leave the book might be with the brief introduction by fellow manhwa creator Kim Hyeong-Bae, who writes of Byun's work, "Thought, hypnotized by the line, freezes at the lost look of a young girl who seems to conceal all the secrets of the world."
Appearing every other week, Four-Eyed Stranger looks at classic manga reprints and unusual modern work by Asian artists.
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