I try to look at comics like I look at other works of art – I compare them to what I know, to what I’ve seen and heard, and try to create a connection between them and my circumstances. Whenever we read, we internalize, and we either reject it or we make it our own. With the Manga/Manhwa Moveable Feast, comics bloggers are invited to take these internalizations, these human connections, and present them to the world. This month, we are looking at The Color Trilogy, a Korean comic series written by Kim Dong Hwa that was originally published in 2003, and localized by First Second in 2009. The trilogy is composed of three (duh) books; The Color of Earth, The Color of Water, and The Color of Heaven. It explores Korea in an older age, and the growing process of Ehwa and her widowed mother, their sexuality, and their relationships as daughter, mother, friends, lovers, and women.
When I read the the Color of Trilogy, I am reminded immediately of the Oscars, and more specifically, the movies that that win Oscars because the Academy loves the trope of cinema these films belong to. Some cinegeeks call them “Oscarbait” and the reason is clear – they’re films that try their damnedest to win an Oscar by appealing to things that the Academy cares about, and they usually air within the last two months before the Oscars are awarded. Films like these are art-house indie flicks, and they are generally not well known to the general public. Such is the Color of Trilogy.
Compare the trilogy to any number of films, and you’ll start to see a resemblance, even in the minor details. The Color of Trilogy uses beautiful binding, uneven page cutting, and large page size much in the same way that films like The Aviator use big names (Leonardo DiCaprio, Alan Alda) to make an impression. When you look at the book/movie, you automatically think – this “work” will be good. Much in the same way, when you examine the plot, you see much beloved Oscar-nom tropes; oppressed women making real choices, sexual awakening. Compare this to films like The Hours or Precious and you’ll see the resemblance, even if it’s not an exact fit.
The Color of Trilogy defines itself as a period piece about women growing together. It does not, however, describe itself as a work tightly bound to traditional stereotypes, nor does it describe itself as a work that wallows in sexual content. These are, unfortunately, the defining characteristics of the work. On one hand, we see Ehwa’s mother fight against wealthy land owners vying for her daughter’s hand in marriage, but moments later we see her tell her daughter that it is a woman’s place to wait for her man at home. What wonderful sentiments. As to the love and relationships portion of the book, I would go so far as to say that the Color of Trilogy does not really focus on love at all, or, that the best the series can hope for is that love is a minor consideration for the reader. Constantly throughout the book we are bombarded with sex covered up with flowers, peppers, and seeds. Every statement is a metaphor for some sexual act or bodily function, even if the dialogue is about flowers and gourds.
What shows throughout all of this seedy (pun intended) content is that this is definitely not a woman’s tale of growing up in opression – it’s a man’s tale, written by a man who looks back at this time with a sort of rose-colored fondness. This is the main failing of the book – that the story told is not authentic. The Color Trilogy does not connect to this reader because it is so hollow and assuming. I cannot believe in the characters or their hardship because everything is painted over with a varnish of butterflies and some sort of ancient, childhood awe.
The issue is, unlike the pieces of cinema I mentioned that can win the hearts of the Academy, the final product here falls flat, not unlike Sam Mendes’ period piece Revolutionary Road, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. The Color of Trilogy, while an interesting work of fiction, does not do what it sets out to do. Like Revolutionary Road, the Color of Trilogy seems to show off its greatest attributes in the very beginning of the series, but the headway it gains from this beginning loses steam and peters out completely by the end of the tale. The Color of Trilogy shows off its impressive use of metaphor and beautiful art, but these attributes are quickly overshadowed by overly-flowery, sexist dialog. Likewise, Revolutionary Road gives a stunning portrayal of the death of love and an evocative look at the lust for conformity, then quickly turns into a marred, unsympathetic, and depressing rut. The Color of Trilogy and the Revolutionary Road both have qualities that could have made them award winners, but any good they do is quickly overshadowed by their flaws.
The author, Kim Dong Hwa, says that his comics are his mother’s story brought to ink and page, but the real story, that story of the girl who loved and wanted love, who was insecure yet beautiful, who stood by her mother, learned from her, and grew up with her, the story I want to read, is lost in translation amongst the flowers and peppers.