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A Modern Fairy Tale of Magical Realist Mood

‘One Hundred Shadows’

By Hwang Jungeun, Translated by Jung Yewon, 152 pages, £8.99, London: Tilted Axis Press [2016]

In an unnamed forest, a girl named Eungyo follows a mysterious shadow as it draws her deeper and deeper into the woods. A sun shower is falling — a “fox rain,” as it is known in Korean — and the world is blanketed in an odd haze. It is only when her friend, a boy named Mujae, calls her back that she realizes the shadow was her own. Thus begins “One Hundred Shadows,” a fabulist tale that explores darkness and light, becoming lost and being found, all while painting a vivid picture of the deepening relationship between Eungyo and Mujae.

Although most of the book takes place in an electronics market and the main characters’ neighborhoods in downtown Seoul, the magical realist mood of the modern fairy tale is maintained from that first scene in the forest to the last scene on a dark island. It is tempting to read — and indeed hard to resist reading — symbolism into these fairy tale scenes. The forest has always been a symbol for the mysterious and the unknown, as well as for our own subconscious, while the island represents isolation. And then there is the shadow, the thread that runs through the entire narrative. Could this, as Hwang suggests, represent our unacknowledged dark side? Is this why various characters counsel Eungyo not to follow her shadow if it rises, because it can never lead to anything good?
But this is one of the beautiful things about fairy tales: although the symbols and messages contained therein often seem obvious, the tales themselves allow for a multitude of interpretations. While shadows often appear to symbolize our dark side, the fact remains that a shadow requires light for its existence. And it is clear in the novel that the shadow is an integral part of the person to whom it belongs; only when the shadow is in its place, when darkness and light are in balance, are we whole. One might also argue that the rising of shadows is more symptom than cause.
There is another element of the novel that calls into question our certainty in symbols, and that is the arbitrariness of words and language. We are all familiar with the phenomenon: repeat a word often enough and it will start to separate itself from the meaning we have assigned it. Divorced from sense, it becomes nonsense. As Eungyo and Mujae repeat words like “whorl” and “slum,” the sounds begin to feel strange and foreign. Why is this important? One of many possible interpretations: this is a reminder that symbols only have the significance and meaning that we assign them. Just as the symbolic system of language is ultimately arbitrary, the symbols we assign meaning to in life are not necessarily carved in stone.

However one may choose to interpret the fabulist tale of “One Hundred Shadows,” it is a thoughtful work that rewards rumination. The unpretentious tone and straightforward language allow for quick reading, but there are many moments to ponder the applicability of the metaphors and symbols present. And through it all, there is the simple, bittersweet, and ultimately human relationship of a boy and a girl, each striving to come to their own understanding of life. Is it merely futility, a matryoshka doll of twenty-nine layers, the last merely the size of a pea and crushed underfoot? Or is it a walk along a dark road punctuated by the rare streetlamp, yet a walk nonetheless toward some unknown hope? These are questions worth pondering, and “One Hundred Shadows” provides ample opportunity for reflection.

A Window into the Cutting Edge of Korean Architecture

‘The Frontline of Korean Architecture: DOCUMENTUM 2014–2016’

Edited by Sangho Kim, 244 pages, $146.24, Seoul: Archilife [2016]

Traditional Korean architecture will no doubt be the first thing that comes to mind for many readers when the words “Korean architecture” are mentioned. Yet, while traditional architectural treasures deserve admiration and appreciation, this is not the endpoint of Korean architecture. Architects continue to explore and experiment, borrowing elements from tradition even as they seek out new styles and approaches.
“The Frontline of Korean Architecture: DOCUMENTUM 2014–2016” is a window into this new world. The content is drawn from the pages of DOCUMENTUM, an architectural magazine launched in the spring of 2014.
As the title suggests, the buildings featured here do not represent typical contemporary Korean architecture but the cutting edge. And DOCUMENTUM seeks not to simply document this cutting-edge architecture dispassionately, without further comment, but to delve deeper into the process behind the construction of these buildings, specifically into the relationships between the ideas and activities that led to the finished structures. This drive is most apparent in the compilation’s centerpieces: three longer essays on a volleyball training center, a building that houses an international exhibition and the renovation of a house originally built in the 1930s. Fifteen shorter pieces provide insights into these processes of other recent buildings. Finally, the compilation is punctuated by “status” pages, collections of smaller drawings, diagrams, and photographs from each issue of the magazine, from “Issue Zero” in the winter of 2013 to the fall of 2015.

Each article is accompanied by an abundance of photographs and diagrams. The photographs deserve special mention as they are works of art highlighting the artistry of the buildings they take as their subjects. From buildings that incorporate elements of traditional Korean architecture to those that seem to eschew such considerations entirely, the architecture featured here will be inspiring to anyone interested in design and aesthetics.

Rhythm and Voice of 21st Century Youth

‘23’

By Hyukoh, Audio CD $25.99, Seoul: Genie Music [2017]

There is no pretense or exaggeration. The sound glides smoothly into the ears. Each piece is gentle and subtle, but has solid structure. From keen sensitivity to deep emotion, the songs have a remarkable range but a certain unity. Never boring even upon repeated listening, it is an album of our time.
This is how I feel after listening to “23,” the first full-length album by the rock band Hyukoh. The members, lead singer Oh Hyuk, Im Dong-geon on bass, Lim Hyun-jae on guitar and Lee In-woo on drums, were all born in 1993. Although they have released the mini albums “20” and “22,” and several singles, “23” is their first full-length album.
Hyukoh sings mostly in English, and the universal appeal of the lyrics is one reason why the band has been well received overseas. The first song, “Burning Youth,” is a short introduction. After warming up, it suddenly stops and then flares up into a splendid blaze. “Tokyo Inn” proceeds steadily in a slightly Chinese- or perhaps kitsch-style rhythm. “Ah, I just want to hide. At the very back, I just...” It is a self-portrait of a somewhat ashamed youth, standing at the side. By contrast, “Leather Jacket” is remarkable with its speedy pace and scat singing: “Doo bie doo bie doo.” The vocals convey the messages clearly, as smoothly as a ride in a luxury car.

In “Tomboy,” the highlight and hit song of the album, Oh Hyuk sings, “We, the young, can’t see the growth rings, blinded by the bright lights.” It is like an anthem of youth trying to find direction.

Charles La Shure Professor, Department of Korean Language and Literature, Seoul National University
Ryu Tae-hyung Music Columnist

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