Cheon Myeong-kwan’s Modern Family (고령화 가족 or “Aging Family” in Korean) is a novelistic Korean soap-opera with a bad attitude. How much of a soap-opera? The narrator, In-mo, a failed director and divorced alcoholic consistently explicitly compares the twists and turns of his family life to one, and at one point even prays for divine intervention of a classic Korean soap-opera twist, when he wishes that a rich chaebol boss would swoop into the story and reveal himself to be In-mo’s real father.
For all it’s operatic characteristics, however, Modern Family is also the story of a family torn apart by various pressures brought upon them by society and a wide range of mistakes that they have all made in their lives. Cheon, while not necessary a fan of some aspects of modern Korea, is honest enough to also recognize that personal decisions often have an impact on lives.
In-mo, as it happens, is not the master of making good decisions.
Narrator In-mo is nothing but honest, perhaps too honest and self-lacerating, at the beginning describing his situation:
I’d been pushed to the edge, with no room to take a singe step forward, and I saw no light at the end of the tunnel … My elders were ashamed of me, and my peers despised me. The first to abandon me was my wife.
In-mo is forced by his failure as a director to move back into his mother’s house, where his brother an apparent dimwit and low-level gangster called “Hammer” is already living. Hammer is a 260 pound eating, fighting and farting machine, and although the mother is happy to have them back, when a third sibling, Mi-yeon and her daughter move in, the family is packed too close and things predictably begin to unravel, with alarming family secrets revealed though black-human interactions and revelations. Everyone has a something in their closet, and every closet is eventually opened.
Just when it seems that everything must certainly fall apart – Mi-yeon’s daughter disappears just as a serial killer is murdering girls her age, Hammer is set up for a fall by his criminal compatriots, In-mo is reduced to directing pornos, and an old family wound is re-opened, Cheon manages to thread together a surprisingly satisfying if not entirely optimistic conclusion. Somehow, threaded through all of this is a surprising amount of contemplation of Hemmingway and his works as well as constant contemplation of food’s role in keeping a family together.
Author Cheon was once a scriptwriter, and his scriptwriting skills serve him well in Modern Family. After reading this quite cinematic work, a reader will not be surprised to learn that it was turned into a “sleeper hit” of a movie, Boomerang Family in 2013.
NOTE: The next paragraph was true at the time the review was published, but quick action by the people at LTI Korea (Who noticed this long before I did!) have resolved the problem. If you have one of the ‘alternate’ covers? Could be a collector’s item some day.^^
The translation by Kyoung-lee Park is quite good. There are two appalling errors on the outside of the book. The author’s name is spelled wrong on the front cover (”Cheong”), and on the spine (Hat tip to Emily, last name unknown, for pointing this out to me^^), the title is spelled “Modern Familly.” I’m not sure how an error like that got by the folks at White Pine Press who published this. It looks completely unprofessional.
But once you get past the cover, this is an excellent modern black-comedy, and should be enjoyable to a wide range of readers. Pick it up on Amazon.