▲ Keum Suk Gendry-Kim tried to remain true to the movie when drawing the graphic novel, as can be seen in its familiar scenes. Photo by The Jeju Weekly
Keum Suk Gendry-Kim had been told it was a film she must see, and all it took was a look at the poster to convince her to take on the job.
“The woman wears traditional clothing, holding a bag. The young soldier looks directly at her but cannot pull the trigger, feeling she is a younger sister or relative. Within the image you have the whole of Korea’s contemporary history.”
▲ Gendry-Kim speaking at Gandeurak Theater, Jeju City. Photo by The Jeju Weekly
The unmistakable scene of a rifle-toting soldier aiming at the head of a young woman, framed by Jeju’s oreum, is taken from O Muel’s Jiseul, winner of the prestigious World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
Gendry-Kim’s task was to recreate the film in French and Korean for a graphic novel, or “manhwa.”
“Even before seeing Jiseul, I knew I wanted to do it. Then when I saw the film, the cinematography itself was already like a work of art,” the native of Jeolla said.
She was moved by Jiseul’s touching representation of the Jeju Massacre (Jeju 4.3) which left up to 30,000 dead between 1947 and 1954.
Despite director O having studied traditional Korean art himself, he did not work alongside Gendry-Kim in making the book, although she was influenced by his work’s essence.
▲ “I have always had something to say, and it is not the image but the message that is important.” Photo by The Jeju Weekly
“Normally, movies or graphic novels portray massacres brutally, but Jiseul is warm and beautiful. Rather than showing massacre, it even brings a smile to our faces by showing the innocence of farmers who only care about their potato crops or children,” she said.
Her traditional ink drawings are also powerful for their bleak beauty, sometimes without dialogue for page after page. Gendry-Kim had to make some changes, however, such as when choosing standard Korean over Jeju dialect.
“At first I tried to use only some words such as ‘oemeong’ [mother] and ‘abang’ [father] or some verb endings, but the Jiseul people suggested using either the original Jejueo, or choosing standard Korean. I decided to go with the latter as it is important for people to understand,” she said.
▲ Photo by The Jeju Weekly
Tackling tough subject matter
Gendry-Kim majored in Western painting and studied sculpture at L'École Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs de Strasbourg, but after exhibiting her work across Europe she eventually moved into graphic novel drawing.
It was not long before she was disillusioned with the formulaic manhwa storylines sent to her, which were dismissed in France as Japanese mimicry and lowbrow. She thus began to draw and write her own, following the “artist’s duty” to speak up on historical and social issues.
Her work has since covered dictatorship in 20th-century Korea, Japanese sexual enslavement of Korean “comfort women,” and she is currently working on a book on Jeju’s haenyeo, or women divers.
“I have always had something to say, and it is not the image but the message that is important,” she said.
▲ The French version aims to bring the story of the Jeju Massacre to a wider international audience. Image courtesy Seohaemunjip
She hopes this current work can help bring some solace to Jeju’s massacre victims and — also being published in French — bring more international awareness to the tragedy.
“What was most moving was that [the people] had to hide the truth for so long as if they were criminals ... Even though it is only a little, I want to let the long-suffering families know that they are not alone and have not been forgotten,” she said.
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