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Brochure: Cheon Myeong-kwan


Cheon Myeong-kwan, born in 1964, is arguably one of Korea’s most accomplished raconteurs. Truth be told, we might never have witnessed Cheon’s prodigious talent if not for success eluding him in his chosen career path as a screenwriter-cum-filmmaker; a blessing in disguise that, while no doubt a loss for the film world, was a huge gain for Korean literature.


Cheon turned to writing fiction in his forties in an attempt to find other means of earning a livelihood, spurred on by the words of his sibling who urged him to give up writing screenplays that would never see the light of day. The result was “Frank and I,” an absurd, comic tale about an unemployed married man who travels to Canada to visit his cousin Frank but, instead, ends up meeting a Los Angeles gangster who shares the cousin’s name. With this debut story, Cheon won the coveted Munhakdongne New Writer Award in 2003.


Only a year later, in 2004, he won the prestigious Munhakdongne Novel Award for Whale, his first novel whose magical realism led to comparisons with Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Whale delineates the life history of three women: an ugly old woman who runs a restaurant; Geumbok, a woman who grabs the attention of men with her unique scent; and Geumbok’s daughter, Chunhee, who is mute and simpleminded. Part 1 and 2 revolve around the stories of Geumbok and the old woman. One day, Geumbok, who lives with her alcoholic father, bums a ride on a fish seller’s vehicle and travels to a fishing hamlet. With industry, inventiveness and luck, Geumbok soon transforms into a successful entrepreneur. The old woman, who bears a deep grudge against the world, blinds her daughter in one eye and sells her off to a beekeeper. Years later, the one-eyed daughter returns with a swarm of bees, and the old hag meets her end, leaving behind a hidden stash of money, which Geumbok later discovers. In Part 3, a fire breaks out in the whale-shaped theatre built by Geumbok, claiming several lives. Chunhee, Geumbok’s daughter, is arrested for arson and after a decade of wretched incarceration returns to the brick factory where she survives by baking bricks. Whale’s allure lies in its grand temporal backdrop, unique cast of characters, rich plotline that borrows from and transcends fantasy and myth, slow buildup of suspense, unpredictable twists and turns, and farcical situations.


Modern Family, published in 2010, features a motley crew of characters who make up a dysfunctional Korean family. Circumstances force the black sheep of the family, in this case not one but all three children, including In-mo, a 48-year-old burned-out film director; his brother, the 50-year-old bum Han-mo; their sister, 45-year-old Mi-yeon, who flits from one failed marriage to another; and her rebellious teenage daughter, Min-kyung to move in with their 70-year-old widowed mother. This unlikely family reunion turns out to be a veritable recipe for mayhem and a complete laugh riot, with a few skeletons popping out of the closet along the way. This work was adapted into the sleeper hit Boomerang Family in 2013.


Cheon’s notable works include the short story collections Cheerful Maid Marisa (2006), A Blue-collar Worker Who Runs with a Turkey (2014), and the novels Whale (2004), Modern Family (2010), and My Uncle, Bruce Lee (2012).

International Events (3)

Translated Books (17)