Yeon-sik Hong’s Uncomfortably Happily is a prime example of what’s called a “slice-of-life” story, where tales of daily life and happenstances take priority over more straightforward plots and easy conflict resolutions. Hong’s memoir chronicling a year living with his wife in (relative) isolation explores themes of autonomy, fear, modernization, and conservation that in many ways are uniquely Korean, and in others comfortably universal.
The Japanese have their manga, Koreans have their manhwa. Increasingly, the two have begun a happy marriage of convergence that both highlight and contrast the similarities and differences between both cultures, and this cross-pollination can be especially rewarding for those international readers hungry to expand their horizons and make kimchi as familiar as sushi.
The Westernization of South Korean culture has been far more exhaustive than in peninsula-mate Japan, to the point you’d think the market for manhwa would prompt a flood of Korean comic talent stateside. Sure, we’ve got scads of K-Pop, Gangnam Style, and Korean soap operas, but it ain’t the same. The joys of reading international comics often come with the little things, such as anatomically correct animals, or contrasting cultural differences that go far beyond generational. Try keeping that in mind when reading about grilling dog meat or when Sohmi Lee asks for her husband’s ‘permission’ to get a job to help pay the bills..
Hong’s massive tome, originally published in two-volumes back in 2012, is finally available for English readers thanks to a fine translation by Korean-American writer/illustrator Hellen Jo (Regular Show, Steven Universe) by way of Drawn and Quarterly. At nearly 600 pages there’s a lot to take in, and those opting for the massive paper version shouldn’t be intimidated by its thickness.
The purifying effects of heading ‘back to nature’ and retreat from urban sprawl have long been favorite subject in literature since Thoreau’s Walden convinced people to head back into the woods. We love a good juxtaposition, and few things juxtapose better than City and Country Living. Makoto Shinkai’s 2016 film Your Name embraced similar themes of rural dislocation, and quickly became the highest-grossing anime film of all-time – including a massive haul in South Korean cinemas. Uncomfortably Happy may not have a body-swapping, time-altering plot, but it does have cats. Lots of adorable cats. And a dog. And eventually chickens.
The book follows two thirty-something artists aching to make their way in modern South Korea. Yeon-sik Hong works as a freelance artist with dreams of crafting his own graphic novel, yet ekes out a living as a slave to his editor’s constant nagging for revisions at all hours of the day. His wife, Sohmi Lee, serves as both his unwavering support system and the couple’s eternal optimist, diligently working on her own artwork when she’s not caring for the household and their trio of cats.
Facing a crushing amount of post-graduate debt and rising expenses, the couple flee the hustle and urban bustle of Seoul for the mountainside city of Pocheon in Gyeonggi province. After settling into their new home, the young couple make life on the mountain their own, adapting as best they can. The isolation and space afforded them opens up entirely new possibilities that would otherwise be unavailable in more urban settings, like growing a garden and experiencing wild delicacies like wild herbs and tasty fish fresh from the pond.
Much of the pleasure from Uncomfortably Happy come from watching this entirely modern city couple adapt to their new surroundings, but never surrender. It’s the little things, like switching out a costly propane heater for a more efficient coal burner, or the back-breaking tilling a rocky patch into a small garden. How surprising for them when certain ‘compromises’ of modernity are more bearable than they originally thought. Consider that most South Koreans are still a generation from the rural provincialism of their recent ancestors and you’ll forgive Yeon-sik Hong and Sohmi Lee for not entirely ‘escaping’ the trappings of modern life like cellphones, internet, and indoor plumbing.
While there are scenes touching on the struggles facing so many freelance comic artists, the focus is squarely on the daily grind familiar to millions of couples. So much of the narrative takes place in the slightly claustrophobic mountain-side dwelling, the only interactions between Hong and his wife often the sole focus. One word comes to mind: padding, especially as so much of the running time is taken up with scenes that repeat over and over,
The book does explore the effects of loneliness and failure, though even these moments are treated as more interludes of self-doubt that true psychological breakdowns Hong’s descent into melancholy and depression is rendered like a surreal acid trip that are in stark contrast to an otherwise whimsical and comical flow of the rest of the story. It’s not that Hong’s work lacks critical depth; it’s an appreciable compromise, but one that never quite feels – forgive me – like a comfortable one.
Those wanting a more complex examination of (comic) artist-as-subject should take a look at Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life, which offers considerably more angst and the fuller character study you might be looking for.
Hong’s art style can be “gorgeously detailed yet minimal”, as the publisher calls it; think post-war Japanese manga. I’ve read criticism calling his drawings childish or infantile, but don’t believe that noise. The art does become noticeably more confident as the story progresses, perhaps owing to the book’s long creation cycle. Large-scale panels are often quite beautiful as the serene mountainside landscapes are rendered as the idyllic utopia they’re being offered as. Hong is especially good with quiet, snowy backdrops that demonstrate the calming power of nature and isolation; both key points here.
He also showcases excellent timing to his panels things slip the bonds of reality to visually represent those more surreal moments as only a good comic can. Especially effective are those tense scenes showing Hong’s descent into abject despair and inner madness, the portrait of an artist haunted by the demons (some quite literal) of failure and cultural emasculation. Conversely, what could be more appropriate than celebrating companionship with a fireside grilling with a few inebriated singing cats and dogs? I’m a sucker for visual exposition when it serves the story, and it’s hard to beat generous pets offering their feces as fertilizer for the righteous cause of healthy garden growth.
Those western readers unfamiliar with Asian culture may be surprised to discover just how patriarchal much of the story is. While it’s never in doubt that Hong deeply cares for his wife, the constant assertion of his male dominance and posturing may come across as regressive, even backwards, by modern gender standards. I suspect a great deal of Hong’s underlying turmoil comes not just from a normal dread of failure, but having to witness his wife – someone not classically trained in foundational art and female – as possibly the more successful partner.
While Hong constantly complains he never has time for his own artwork, making excuse after excuse, Sohmi Lee buckles down and simply draws. Both resign themselves to adapting to life on the mountain, both fully committing to their respective roles to tame the soil and thrive in nature. And yet, how each approaches this couldn’t be more different; Hong is aggressive in his pursuit of conforming nature to his will, with scenes of tilling soil and chopping wood a substitute for violent expression. Lee, on the other hand, owing to her familiarity with gardening, is far more complimentary and gentle with her newfound surroundings, maintaining a comfortable rhythm that her husband never quite perfects.
To prematurely discount their relationship on this assumption would be a mistake, however. Indeed, one of the book’s most satisfying moments come when Sohmi Lee sees her submission to a prestigious comics contest winning the Grand Prize, complete with a trip to Denmark. It’s a remarkable moment, and Hong’s recognition of his wife’s talents is revelatory as he acknowledges how dismissive he’s been, often at his own expense. “I tried to teach my wife to draw the way I was taught. But in the end, my advice would have toxic.”
Lest you think these are holdovers from a developing South Korean culture, a few seem to have slipped into this English publication. Yeon-sik Hong’s wife, Sohmi Lee, an accomplished artist in her own right – and let’s not forget a complete equal in the story – is simply listed as “his partner” in the book’s author bio. Twice.
I’m not convinced that Hong’s sojourn into mountain life was as transformative or inspirational as we’re being led to believe it was, or that it should’ve been. The couple’s decision to relocate from the city to mountain life appears to have been more an economic choice than spiritual. We’re left with the impression Hong’s struggles with his confidence and sense of inferiority would have occurred regardless where he lived, though mountain living may have provided the opportunity for some much-needed soul-searching.
So much of western literature is built on the foundational logic that events and circumstances must have critical change-moments on the lives and outcomes of characters, the requisite ‘eureka!’ catharsis where promised outcomes are finally served up fresh and tasty by the finale. How often we forget that our lives are more cumulative than a collection of mere pivots. Like Yeon-sik Hong and Sohmi Lee’s tasty outdoor hot pot lunches, some moments are best when left to simmer.
Despite some interesting digressions into the author’s psyche and existential ponderings of contentment versus attainment, Uncomfortably Happily seldom rises above its simple premise of delivering a quaint look at survival in modern Korea. Not that it needs to. Hong’s memoir is an utterly charming and surprisingly quick read, despite its phonebook-length size, and should delight those willing to give its languid pacing and open-ended resolution a chance. If nothing else, it leaves one hoping to see more of Yeon-sik Hong’s work translated in the future.