Photo Shop Murder by Kim Young-Ha

Another Brilliant Cover

Earlier on this site I reviewed Kim Young-Ha’s I Have The Right To Destroy Myself, which I really enjoyed, partly because it was extremely international. While it took place partly in Korea, the story could have taken place anywhere, and no particular knowledge of Korean society or history was necessary to understanding it.  Prior to publication of that work, Jimoondang/KLTI published a slender volume containing the two short stories Photo Shop Murder and Whatever Happened To The Guy In The Elevator.  Like “Destroy Myself” these stories have a universal appeal.  Kim’s work is existential and Kafka-esque, while also quickly told and efficiently plotted.

Photo Shop Murder is a noirish detective story. It begins, of course, with a corpse, his (now) widow who may be a murderer, but certainly invokes feelings from the detective, a lover with a baseball bat, and a strange character who has seduced the wife with a cleverly deployed series of photographs. The detective is an alienated man, partially because he has caught his own wife in flagrante delicto, a scene that is revealed in flashback and features a brilliant image of soiled sheets and their washing.

Kim Young-Ha

The style and translation are outstanding – Author Kim and translator Jason Rhodes do an excellent job of reproducing the flat, semi-documentary style that westerners associate with Humphrey Bogart or James Rockford. The first line of the story is the deadpan, “Why do murders always seem to happen on Sundays?” The tone is consistent throughout with the narrator snapping semi-wise, even to himself, as in his observation that murder investigations are better than other crimes because, “With murder, at least one side was quiet.”

The crime in Photo Shop Murder ends in near randomness – everything that has been investigated turns out to be meaningless, although the crime is solved – and the detective returns to his unhappy home, where memories overwhelm him and he is semi-accidentally injured by his wife. The story ends with a stark image: “I fell asleep. In my dream, I’d become a fruit, and my wife was peeling my skin. It was a happy dream.”

Whatever Happened To The Guy Stuck in the Elevator is an absurdist look at day in which everything goes wrong: People reveal themselves to be self-centered, and technology reveals itself to be untrustworthy. The single businessman who narrates, begins his day by breaking his razor, and things continue to go wrong from there.  On his way out of the building he is forced to use the stairs because the elevator is stalled. On the 5th floor he finds the reason, a man is stuck (and perhaps hurt or dying) in the elevator door. The rest of the story focuses on the man’s attempts to notify someone about the man in the elevator and his continually unraveling day. There is an amusing set piece in which the businessman gives an ‘important’ presentation to his colleagues; an argument for increasing toilet-paper efficiency. Predictably, the presentation does not go as he expects. When the narrator finally does reach 911 to report the man in the elevator he is disbelieved and when he returns to his apartment, where the hot water has been turned off, he is still in a state of uncertainty.

Together, these two works are an amusing but somewhat depressing portrait of a disconnected society and the absurdity of modern life.

6 thoughts on “Photo Shop Murder by Kim Young-Ha

  1. Maybe you have by chance considered placing extra pic to the body writings blogposts to be able to keep the readers further entertained? I just mean I simply scan through the entire piece of writing of yours and even this appeared to be very quality but considering the fact that I

  2. ? Weird comment.

    Funny: I hated I Have the Right To Destroy Myself (I just failed to see the point in it, though… have you seen the film they made out of it?) but I absolutely loved the short stories, especially the second one… which to me seemed to me to be as much about the collapsibility of systems, order, and dependability… as a friend I recently quoted elsewhere put it, about a society where every institution seems a mere “two steps away from collapse” and where people don’t worry because, hey, at least it’s not a mere one step away. By the way, I didn’t find it at all depressing: I laughed like hell all the way through.

  3. Gord…. Destroy Myself is a polarizing work.. I know other people who hated it’s existential flatness and the kind of snotty aesthetic tone the narrator took. As a snotty aesthete myself, it resonated. In addition, it is so resolutely NOT of the normal Korean modern lit mode… though as I say that I think of Yi Munyol’s “Twofold Song” and Yun Choe’s “The Flower with 13 Fragances” as similar escapes from the normal.. and ones that are probably not as annoying to many readers. 😉

  4. Pingback: Random Korean Literature Links

  5. Hi! I’ve been poring over your reviews of Korean literature for days now. Kim Young-ha’s a favorite of mine; his “I Have The Right To Destroy Myself” was one of the few Korean books I read when I actually lived in Korea.

    I’d like to point out that has Photo Shop Murder for $7.59 plus shipping. I was overjoyed when I found the site, for I’d only seen the book on Amazon and Abebooks for exorbitant prices and was resigned to not being able to read it…until this week, when the book arrived! It’s a quality one…two excellent stories. I particularly like “Whatever Happened To…” for it’s bitter hilarity.

    [ is a journal of my time in Gangwon-do.]

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