Functional Family Dysfunction: Modern Family by Cheon Myeong-kwan

  • onJuly 16, 2015
  • Vol.28 Summer 2015
  • byWest Camel
Modern Family
Tr. Park Kyoung-lee

Throughout Modern Family, Cheon Myeong-kwan’s 2010 novel, the narrator, In-mo, describes the story he is telling as a soap opera. Indeed it has all the hallmarks of the genre: sibling rivalries; long-held secrets; high emotion; money troubles; and a long-suffering mother, striving to hold her family together. However, Cheon—who cut his literary teeth as a screenwriter— is not writing a traditional soap opera. Instead he uses the format’s tropes to build a nuanced picture of a contemporary family and to examine the commodification of personal relationships.

In-mo, a failed, middle-aged movie director, has been pushed by bankruptcy to move in with his mother and recidivist elder brother, Hammer. Just as they are settling into awkward co-habitation, a younger sister, Mi-yeon, who has split up with her husband over a fight about her infidelity, arrives with her teenage daughter, Min-gyeong. The pressures of living cheek-by-jowl soon begin to test the family’s loyalties and affection.

In 1939, Kim Namcheon published the Korean classic, Taeha (published in English as Scenes from the Enlightenment), in which he describes late-19th century Korea transforming from a traditional society into a modern one. Modern Family covers similar ground, examining a South Korea once again in transition. Just as the concerns in Taeha revolve around who owns what, eats where and marries whom, so the plot of Modern Family revolves around money, debt, food, and sex. Throughout the novel, Cheon draws parallels between finance and work, which are clearly transactional, and the way intimate and sexual relationships have become commodities that can be traded.

Food acts as a symbol of these transactions. It is a currency in the newly-reformed household. Hammer, obese and ravenous, eats everything in sight. In-mo, malnourished from alcoholism, gorges on the plenty his mother provides. In a key early scene, their niece, Min-gyeong, buys herself a large pizza, but refuses to share it with her uncles. The disrespect this represents, the filial rivalry it reveals, and the unexpected loyalty it highlights persist to the end of the novel.

In contrast to this pizza incident is the “meat-eating competition.” With all her family once again under her roof, Mom finds from somewhere the money to serve her children vast quantities of beef and pork: “Mom acted like she’d staked her life on meat,” In-mo observes. For her part, Mom sighs and says, “You kids turned out so weak from eating only rationed rice.”

What Mom is doing is repaying her children for the indiscretions of her youth. The rationed rice represents the limited love and attention she gave them growing up. Because, it transpires, Hammer and Mi-yeon are In-mo’s half-siblings: Hammer is not Mom’s biological child, but the son of her husband by a previous marriage; and Mi-yeon is her daughter by an extra-marital affair which briefly broke up the family. Now Mom is attempting to give all three children equal attention and an equal right to her home.

Hammer ends up acting in the same spirit. In In-mo’s eyes he is the “wild boar” who consumes and destroys everything. However, though he is unrelated to his niece by blood, Hammer sacrifices his freedom and puts his life in danger to save her. Min-gyeong runs away, prompted by a combination of events: her mother finds yet another new partner; Hammer steals her panties; and, significantly, In-mo blackmails her (in order to take a woman on a trip, he forces Min-gyeong to buy his silence about her smoking). Unlike In-mo, Hammer feels a huge sense of guilt over his part in her disappearance, and through his gangland contacts, manages to trace Min-gyeong and bring her home. However, Hammer has to make a trade—in exchange for the gang’s help, he must take the fall for their crimes.

In-mo resents Hammer for his noble behavior, illustrating one of the most fascinating aspects of the novel: Cheon’s ability to tell the story from the point of view of a character who is unaware of his own shortcomings. In-mo is spoiled and selfish; the only child of both parents in the oddly configured family, he was regarded as the most gifted of the children, with a university education and the promise of a successful career ahead of him. In his own eyes, however, while the behavior of his criminal brother and promiscuous sister damage the family’s honor and wear his mother down, he is simply a failure. He resents the way the neighborhood gossips align him with his defective siblings. But it is clear his resentment stems from his suspicion of the truth—a truth he only acknowledges when Hammer’s persecutors beat him almost to death.

The beating not only makes In-mo realize how his family have privileged him, it also forces him to see the error of his belief in the transactional nature of sex and relationships. During a brief affair, he describes sex as having either “value in use or in exchange”—it either satisfies desires or is something to be traded for money, security, or position. However, when an old girlfriend pulls him back from the brink of death, for no selfish reason of her own, he understands Mi-yeon’s struggles, sees how Hammer has ultimately acted with integrity and realises that sex can be given and received as part of a loving partnership. Most importantly, he comes to appreciate the unconditional, non-tradable love his mother has given her children, just like in any traditional—or modern—family. 



by West Camel
Freelance Writer, Reviewer, and Editor


Author's Profile

Cheon Myeong-kwan is a novelist and scriptwriter. He has received the Munhakdongne Novel Award and the Kusang Young Writer Award. His books have been translated into English, French, Chinese, Russian, and Vietnamese. English editions of his work include Modern Family and “Homecoming.” Modern Family was adapted into the movie Boomerang Family.