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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Madang Blues ("The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly")

We all keep very strong images from a few cherished books and animation movies of our childhood, and the most powerful ones are often the worlds we built in our heads as readers, sometimes fueled by a gem seeded by some talented illustrator along our paths.

For instance, I remember very well an apparently very simple illustration of a forest at the bottom of a page from a tale - I forgot which story, but that was very early in the narrative. It simply depicted a small grove's canopy from above, almost as a cute and round bouquet, and I wondered what marvels and threats could hide behind these innocent leaves. To me, this forest looked at the same time tiny and infinite, beautiful and scary, harmless and lethal, open to all possibilities and claustrophobically hermetic. Compared to that simple illustration, all others in the book felt dull, overly explicit, an insult to the story and its readers. For the first time, I realized the sheer power of illustration as a catalyst for imagination... and as a potential downer.

Much later, I realized that the animation movies that had left the strongest impression on me were all clay animations, and that their imperfections served as asperities for the viewer's imagination to take hold and to claim if not control, at least some room for manoeuvre. I didn't necessarily enjoy these movies, but I enjoyed that upsetting feeling, these unanswered questions, and I appreciated much more the artist's effort, as well as their respect for their young audience. I did enjoy Disney movies, but like you enjoy an industrial ice cream: yes that's what I wanted, but was it what I needed?

When the animation movie "Leafie, a hen into the wild" was released, three years ago, I learned that it was an adaptation from a very popular children's book boosted by a star-laden ro(o)ster (e.g. CHOI Min-sik). The film quickly became a hit, but I really didn't like its Marketing 101 / "what kids want" downer of a trailer. I found much more inviting the cover of the English translation of the book, published last year as "The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly" by Penguin Books (note that penguins can't fly either, but this one knows how to make books fly off shelves - particularly when the said book has already done it in several languages before).

I know you should never judge a book by its cover or a film by its poster, but check this contrast (speaking of forests...):

The Penguin's take at The Hen (get the book!)
The animated movie adaptation ("Leafie, a hen into the wild")

HWANG Sun-mi's bestseller "마당을 나온 암탉" could be translated as "The hen who came out of the yard", which conveys much fewer levels of universality than "The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly"... and much fewer levels of action than "Leafie, a hen into the wild" (NB: in Korean, the original title remains), but echoes the author's self-confessed, low-key approach: you can't reach for the universal without accepting the trivial*.

The title character, "잎싹", becomes "Leafie" in the film, "Sprout" in the book. I prefer the second translation: closer to the original in meaning, the word also sounds more like her, the frail but determined hen who refuses to remain a slave in a battery cage, and longs for a better life in what she believes to be the best and safest place on earth, the barnyard. Sprout will manage to escape her prison, but also struggle to adapt to a foreign environment, and fight to fulfill new responsibilities. Note that in French, the title is "La poule qui voulait vivre sa vie" ("The hen who wanted to live her life" - Chan Ok - Flammarion), and the hero Petite-Feuille (a trifle more poetic than Leafie).

Yesterday, thanks to Barry Welsh's 10 Magazine Book Club, we had the opportunity to buy the book, watch the movie adaptation, and meet the author. I did just that, regretting that, ever the lazy bird, I hadn't read the book before.

HwangSunmi and Barry Welsh about "The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly" at 10MagBookClub

As I flipped through the pages ahead of the screening, I noticed with satisfaction that the illustrator (Kazuko Nomoto a.k.a. Nomoco) didn't draw actual portraits of the protagonists, leaving that up to the author and her readers. I didn't expect much from the film, but I tried to forget my 46-year-old-cynic self, and to switch back to my six-year-old-candid mode, and I enjoyed it much more than a Disney movie because the story hasn't been disneyfied all the way. I bet the audience didn't need that Korean cartoon classic, the overly swimming eye artifice, to sob noisily**...

Warning - spoiler alert: this is not a Disney ending, and in this life, except maybe through that ephemeral yet eternal marvel called love, there is no such thing as a comfort zone. The author wrote her story when she was on her father's deathbed, and death was the only outcome for her main character. So yes, Sprout/Leafie is her father (NB: nothing to do with Anakin, Luke). And no, the book is not about motherhood; Hwang said that she just needed a female character. The actual mother happens to be the least suspected character: 족제비 the weasel. Overall, "The Hen" is more about growing mature, expanding horizons, accepting death, and/or whatever the reader/viewer sees and feels, because...

... this story is not wrapped up hermetically, and along with its darker sides, that's what makes it so powerful. 

The author enjoys the sometimes guilty pleasure of writing, and fully respects her readers. It may have something to do with how, for her, reading and writing have always been entwined. HWANG grew up in the rural Korea of the seventies, where and when children's books were not commodities. An elementary school teacher put her in charge of the library's key, a key that could open doors beyond cages, barnyards, and even the real wide world. Back home, the young Sun-mi would write to remember the stories. She logically started with children's book, a genre and a joy she rediscovered as she raised her own kids.

And today, even with her international success, HWANG Sun-mi keeps a refreshing frankness, a profound respect for fellow children's book authors***. Of course she's very happy to see her books take new forms (musical, film), and to be translated in so many languages, but she's also not totally comfortable with the idea that she can't tell what her stories have gained or lost in translation.

HWANG Sun-mi
She does know that the film adaptation is very different, but since I didn't read the book, I couldn't expect one of the movie's pivotal characters to have been created for the screen****.

Now that I have the book (and glasses**!), I really have no choice but to jump and spread my reading wings.



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* KTLIT's Charles Montgomery made a parallel with Yi Mun-yol (whom, by the way, we also followed across wintery landscapes in a recent RASKB book club, about "Winter that year").
** Were my own eyes swimming? Naah... 'twas only old age, plus smartphone/laptop abuse: I just came to term with the idea that I needed glasses, and bought my first pair today.
*** she listed many Korean and international authors, and I bet this little red riding hood wolfed down all the classics (speaking of bird migrations, she answered yes when I asked if she read Selma Lagerlöf's adventures of Nils Holgersson).
**** The Falstaffian otter Dalsu (달수/수달) struck me as a modern oddity in an otherwise timeless cast, and I wondered how the real estate corporation reacted to the caricature.

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