June Manhwa Moveable Feast: The Color Trilogy

Welcome to this month’s Manhwa Moveable Feast, the first time the MMF has featured on a Korean comic book instead of a Japanese one and also the first time I’ve been able to review a complete series for the MMF! Yay!

The Color Trilogy is about a young Korean girl and her mother in early 20th Century rural Korea. The story depicts the relationship between Ehwa and her single mother as Ehwa grows from a child to a married adult and her emotional and sexual development along the way. The Color of Earth focuses on Ehwa’s slow awareness of sexuality and the beginning of crushes on boys,  The Color of Water focuses on Ehwa’s budding relationship with Duksam and The Color of Heaven focuses on Ehwa’s tragic separation from Duksam and their eventual marriage upon his return.

The art of The Color Trilogy is quite beautiful. The characters are drawn simply, but their emotions are vibrant and Kim Dong Hwa clearly paid a lot of attention to them and the background details, which is important because so much of his writing is poetic lines about flowers or butterflies.

The writing and the overall story of The Color Trilogy is where I start seeing a lot of faults. This isn’t to say Kim Dong Hwa is a terrible writer and The Color Trilogy is devoid of moments that draw you into the story, but the whole manhwa is so goddamn poetic it started to get on my nerves. Now I know life was different back then and maybe they had a little bit more time to be philosophical, but does every single line in a comic book have to be some new (or continued) metaphor about a flower or a butterfly? I can barely even think about how many sappy lines The  Color Trilogy had without wanting to start cursing like a sailor just to reverse the effect. That isn’t to say it’s all bad or that some of those lines didn’t hold true, but I just wanted some more straightforward writing and normal conversations every once in awhile. Ehwa and her friend Bongsoon spoke in metaphors every single time they met up! The customers at Ehwa’s mother’s tavern pretty  much spoke in nothing but lewd euphemisms ALL THE TIME! No one in this whole trilogy was spared from this drippy, flowery (my apologies for the pun) language. It got to the point where I just wanted to scream “ALRIGHT ALREADY” at the characters.

The language, however, is not even my least favorite part of the series. There was one thing I couldn’t get out of my mind: “Geez, my  mom and I were never so poetic and open about sex and boys.” Let’s get some background in here: Much like Ehwa, I have a single working mother and my father had exited my life at a very early age. My mom’s been single ever since and pretty much focused her life on me and her business, again, much like Ehwa’s mother. I never got talks about sex and boys. I had to figure it all out on my own. I got warnings or awkward snippets of sex talks when I started dating like: “boys are not allowed in your room” and “are you having sex with [boyfriend's name]?” My mom pretty much just trusted in sex ed to teach me what I needed to know in order to be safe and responsible. While I realize that Ehwa and I live in much different times, I cannot help but think Ehwa’s mother would have been too busy, just as my mother is/was, to spend so much time waxing poetically about men and what women need to do to get one. I mean… the most important thing I learned from my single, working mom is to always be able to take care of yourself (money-wise), not “give everything you’ve got into finding a man because that’s the only road to happiness.” I feel like that lesson is way more important than getting my boyfriend to put a ring on my finger even if I did want to get married right now!

Ehwa’s mother certainly isn’t a bad person for trying to school her daughter in such a way and getting married in such a time period was more vital to a woman than it is now, but just realize this: that’s ALL we ever see mother and daughter doing together. I may be taking the comparison between Ehwa and myself too far here, but whenever I spent time with my mom, it was usually doing something that needed doing. I helped her out in her office, I walked the dogs with her, I helped her fix dinner. Sure, I did fun stuff with her, but even on half of our vacations I was helping her lead a tour group most of the time or going with her to inspect hotels! (Clarification: my mom runs a travel business.) My mom certainly put me to work because she needed to and because I was there to do that. I find it surprising that Ehwa doesn’t even start learning how to cook until she’s almost marrying age or that we don’t see Ehwa helping out in her mother’s tavern at all. Ehwa doesn’t even help around the house that much (that we’re shown, really) until The Color of Heaven where we see her sweeping up leaves, doing the laundry and going to the market on her own to buy stuff for her mother. Considering how much Ehwa’s allowed to run around as a child, you would think she’d be given plenty of chores to do so her mother’s not constantly busy trying to run a tavern and sweep the porch and buy the groceries, all while raising a child. Perhaps there’s something I’m missing here between the early 20th Century Korean culture and late 20th Century American culture, but it seems like a more realistic Ehwa wouldn’t have gone out picking useless flowers so much!

I guess the biggest thing that makes me mad about The Color Trilogy is this relaxed relationship, which I didn’t get to have, is just so unrealistic to me. (I don’t feel that bitter, I just cannot suspend my belief long enough to truly think Ehwa would do nothing but chatter idly about guys and sex with her mom for years.) Perhaps I’m also jealous that Ehwa got so much freedom to explore relationships with boys. I don’t know. But I’m certainly more mad that Ehwa and her mom discuss nothing but. How one-sided and sexist is it to have a comic based entirely on grooming a girl for marriage and eschewing the importance of having a man in your life?

Aside from my mad rant, which I’m sure is full of flaws of its own, The Color Trilogy suffers from some more problematic issues. The characters spend a lot of time doing nothing but conversing, even when they’re out and about. Because of this the pacing of  the whole series is remarkably slow and when you do get a few moments of more exciting story development, they’re gone just as quickly as they came.

Out of the three, The Color of Earth is the most bearable in terms of all the metaphorical language and the story line. It also self-contains, so it’s the easiest to read without moving onto the other volumes, although The Color of Water and The Color of Heaven have more moments of dynamic storytelling.

I would recommend this book to people who are a bit older and have a bit of relationship experience under their belt. While this book has some discussion questions meant probably for teen-aged readers, I wouldn’t feel quite comfortable giving this to a girl of 15 or so because the story places so much importance in getting married and I feel like children, especially teenagers who are preparing to make serious life decisions, need to be shown that there are multiple paths open to them no matter what the convention is. For adults, however, The Color Trilogy can be a good read if you’re just the right kind of romantic and able to suspend your disbelief more than I was able to. I guess I just relate to the characters a little too well to believe them.

If you want to hear more opinions about The Color Trilogy, please check out this introduction and an archive of posts by this month’s MMF host Melinda Beasi of Manga Bookshelf.

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8 Responses to June Manhwa Moveable Feast: The Color Trilogy

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  3. Erica says:

    Daniella – You’re not alone in having issues with the dialogue. People just do not speak that way all the time. Sure, it gave it a “period” feel, but after a while it weighed me down.

    I have a weird belief that stories for women ought to be about women, not about women waiting for men to complete them. I’m a freak, I know. :-)

    • I don’t think it needed a period feel. It was quite obvious from the artwork, so I think Kim Dong Hwa had it in his head that old people were full of sweet metaphors and proverbs.

      It was certainly your comment on Twitter that sparked a little bit of the rage in this post. Before that I was just going: “man… my mom and I had a similar family dynamic going and I never got to run around picking flowers or getting metaphorical sex talks.” Thanks for making that click in my brain.

      And you’re right about stories for women being about women. I like romance stories as much as the next person, but it’s just as satisfying to see a lady become strong and capable as well as get herself an ideal significant other! It’s not weird at all!

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  5. Ed Sizemore says:

    I would image running a tavern in a small farming town would actually allow for significant free time. There are very few travelers and you only get customers when the famers aren’t busy working the fields. A tavern in a seaport would be a different matter. So the free time felt realistic to me.

    My parents were very forthcoming about sex. But perhaps they were progressive for their time in that regard. That’s unusual, because otherwise my parents are quite conservative.

    I liked the poetic language, a lot. That’s odd since I can count on my fingers the number of poems I read. But here it works, because the metaphors are well developed and have lots of layers.

    I’m sorry this series rubbed you the wrong way (cat metaphor). I felt very out of my comfort zone reading, but I was completly enthralled by the series.

    I like your review and I’m glad you were able to articulate your reactions without resulting to salty language. Thanks.

    • I’m not sure. It seems like Ehwa’s mother had plenty to do, always had a customer or two and considering this is pre-industrial Korea, things would take a lot more time in general… Even so, businesses always have some little thing or another that needs getting done and the fact that we never saw Ehwa (or her mother, really) doing those sort of things instead of gabbing is kind of irksome. What’s the point of having some relatively independent women if all they do is portray a stereotype?

      There’s nothing wrong with being forthcoming about sex and everyone has different parents in that regard, but I still felt that Ehwa’s mother might have been a little focused elsewhere more often than not had she been portrayed more realistically instead of being so idealized.

      As for the poetic language, there were actually some really choice metaphors and comparisons, but after The Color of Earth, EVERYONE was talking in metaphors all the time. It sort of ruined it for me. There needed to be more space between them, more normal conversation. It just drove home the fact that this is someone’s idealized version of a historical period, not an attempt to realistically portray a story set in a certain historical period. I like realistic portrayals of people and places and life, if you haven’t noticed. Things that at least seem like they can happen, even if there’s fantasy involved.

      I’m glad you liked my review, although I feel like I could relate to Ehwa too much in the wrong ways. It’s not that I entirely disliked the trilogy, it was more that I could see where it stopped commanding my attention and made me stop believing these people could be real. It’s not that other people cannot like it, but I certainly would only recommend it very carefully.

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