Kim Young-ha is a great gateway to Korean literature because his topics and style are extremely international. While his stories often take place in Korea and include Korean cultural references and tropes no particular knowledge of Korean society or history is necessary to understanding them (His just about to be published BLACK FLOWER is a bit different in that way). The book PHOTO SHOP MURDER contains the stories "Photo Shop Murder "and "Whatever Happened To The Guy InThe Elevator." Kim's work is existential and Kafka-esque, while also quickly told and efficiently plotted.
"Photo Shop Murder " is a noirish detective story. It begins, of course, with a corpse and his (now) widow who may be a murderer, but certainly invokes feelings from the detective. Other characters include a lover with a baseball bat, the detective's wife and a strange character who has seduced the wife with a cleverly deployed series of photographs. The detective is an alienated man, partially because he has caught his own wife in flagrante delicto, a scene that is revealed in flashback and features a brilliant image of soiled sheets and their washing.
The style and translation are outstanding - Author Kim and translator Jason Rhodes do an excellent job of reproducing the flat, semi-documentary style that westerners associate with Humphrey Bogart or James Rockford. The first line of the story is the deadpan, "Why do murders always seem to happen on Sundays?" The tone is consistent throughout with the narrator snapping semi-wise, even to himself, as in his observation that murder investigations are better than other crimes because, "With murder, at least one side was quiet."
"Photo Shop Murder "ends with the crime resolved, but nothing else, and the detective returns to his unhappy home, where memories overwhelm him and he is semi-accidentally injured by his wife. The story ends with a stark image: "I fell asleep. In my dream, I'd become a fruit, and my wife was peeling my skin. It was a happy dream."
"Whatever Happened To the Guy Stuck in the Elevator" is an absurdist look at day in which everything goes wrong: People reveal themselves to be self-centered, and technology reveals itself to be untrustworthy. The single businessman who narrates, begins his day by breaking his razor, and things continue to go wrong from there. On his way out of the building he is forced to use the stairs because the elevator is stalled. On the 5th floor he finds the reason, a man is stuck (and perhaps hurt or dying) in the elevator door. The rest of the story focuses on the man's attempts to notify someone about the man in the elevator and his continually unraveling day. There is an amusing set piece in which the businessman gives an `important' presentation to his colleagues; an argument for increasing toilet-paper efficiency. Predictably, the presentation does not go as he expects. As in "Photo Shop Murder," the story ends, the plot concludes, but the message that nothing is ever really resolved.
Together, these two works are an amusing but somewhat depressing portrait of a disconnected society and the absurdity of modern life.