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Comic about film and contemporary history: With a film monster to freedom

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When the South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee is kidnapped on behalf of the dictator’s son Kim Jong-il in 1978 and finds herself as his “guest” in North Korea, she has no idea that she will never return to her old life. She will not see her children again until almost ten years later. For a long time she doesn’t find out what she’s supposed to do in North Korea, what Kim Jong-il wants from her.

After years of imprisonment in a golden cage and permanent brainwashing, she meets her ex-husband, the director and producer Shin Sang-ok. Together they had produced numerous films in South Korea. Shin Sang-ok was abducted the same year as Choi Eun-hee, but he endured his time in prison. Kim Jong-il comes out as a film fanatic and finally reveals to the two why he kidnapped her: they are supposed to stimulate the North Korean film industry with new films. And they do it – so successfully that they are allowed to travel abroad in 1985, where they finally put everything on one card and flee.

A page from Madame Choi and the Monsters.
© Edition Modern
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As absurd and adventurous as this all seems, it really happened. Now the comic artist Sheree Domingo (“Ferntalk”, Edition Moderne 2019) and the author and journalist Patrick Spät (“Der König der Vagabunden”, Avant Verlag 2019) have honored this story with an impressive comic. Domingo and Spät were awarded the Comic Book Prize of the Berthold Leibinger Foundation in 2022 for their project, which was still in development at the time.

In “Madame Choi and the Monsters”, Patrick Spät retells the imaginary plot of the South Korean film “Bulgasari” from 1962, in addition to the non-fictional, biographical plot, in which an iron-eating monster supports the population in the fight against a cruel ruler. The film “Bulgasari”, like the eponymous monster, which was borrowed from the cultural fundus of Korean folk tales, is now in the realm of myth, since all copies are considered lost.

Another scene from Madame Choi and the Monsters.
Another scene from Madame Choi and the Monsters.
© Edition Modern
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Did Kim Jong-il have anything to do with the disappearance of the ‘Bulgasari’ reels? At the very least, he’s asking the film couple to remake the film, under the almost identical title “Pulgasari.” No expense has been spared to make the film as impressive as possible. The Japanese film studio Tōhō, from which “Godzilla” also comes, is allowed to produce the special effects, and even the Japanese “Godzilla” actor Kenpachiro Satsuma is hired. Meanwhile, the North Korean population suffers from poverty.

Expressive lines bring a lot of dynamism to the pictures

Sheree Domingo’s expressive lines and figures, drawn with thick brushstrokes, create a wild, sometimes almost flippant and sketchy style that doesn’t fit at all with the constriction of the protagonists in the foreign regime. The expansive line is balanced by the sparse, monochrome coloring in light blue and orange tones – which in turn brings new dynamics into the pictures in the counterplay of the complementary contrast.

The cover of Madame Choi and the Monsters
The cover of Madame Choi and the Monsters
© Edition Modern

With her drawing style and the choice of motifs, Sheree Domingo manages to portray Choi Eun-hee’s contradiction between the outwardly demonstrated conformity and the inner urge for freedom, her strength of will and her anger with simple means.

Instead of a woman who falls victim to the absurd power fantasies of a dictator’s son, the panels in “Madame Choi and the Monsters” are dominated by strong female figures: the young heroine bathing skinny and as the monster’s mistress in “Bulgasari”. Choi Eun-hee as a stage actress fighting a sword, Choi Eun-hee as she breaks free from broken relationships, appears as a self-confident businesswoman in a miniskirt or escapes from captivity with a film-worthy chase.

Even if her ex-husband, who has married twice, is the director of the hit film that finally brought the couple to Vienna and freedom: the heroine of this comic is Madame Choi. With small comic elements such as a soldier’s helmet that has slipped or a soldier clutching at the monster’s whizzing tail, Domingo repeatedly loosens up the seriousness of the subject and reminds us that old martial arts and monster films usually also have something trashy and funny about them.

In addition to the strong images, the elaborately researched historical context is a bit sidelined, which sometimes makes reading a little more difficult, since the connections are not always immediately comprehensible if you have not yet dealt with this part of Korean cultural history. However, the detailed timeline in the appendix is ​​helpful.

Particularly noteworthy is the elaborate design of the band. Matching the topic, the collaged cover image in the style of a trashy 1960s film poster arouses curiosity about the story behind it. The double layers of paper in the cover hide another surprise: a fold-out poster provides a glimpse of contemporary history.

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Source: Tagesspiegel

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