Mourning the cancellation of Suppli? Still in Tramps Like Us withdrawal? Then I have something to help you heal that josei jones: Forest of Gray City, a two-volume soap opera about a twenty-something woman and her nineteen-year-old roommate—a May-July romance, if you will.
Forest of Gray City begins with a meet-cute scene as precious as anything in a Nora Ephron movie. Single and cash-strapped, illustrator Yun-Ook Jang posts an ad for a roommate. No one seems interested until Bum-Moo Lee, an aloof, impeccably dressed young man shows up at her door. She pleads with him to take the room. He accepts. There’s just one problem: Yun-Ook is tipsy and tearful when Bum-Moo arrives, and fails to recognize him as the barkeep she rudely dressed down just a few days prior to posting her ad. When she sobers up, Yun-Ook discovers that Bum-Moo makes a surprisingly good housemate. But would he make a good life mate? That’s the question at the heart of Forest of Gray City, as Yun-Ook wrestles with her attraction to Bum-Moo, an attraction complicated by romantic rivals, family entanglements, ambitious career goals, and that pesky age gap.
Though we learn a lot about Yun-Ook in these opening chapters, Bum-Moo remains a cipher for much of volume one. Given his age and his lack of direction—he’s a high school drop out—that seems appropriate, and helps explain why Yun-Ook initially rebuffs him when he asks, “Is it OK to have a crush on you?” Volume two provides the missing pieces in Bum-Moo’s history, beginning with an extended flashback to Bum-Moo’s relationship with his stepsister, an unhappily married college graduate who harbors an unhealthy attachment to her younger brother.
Volume two packs enough sudsy twists for a sweeps’ week worth of General Hospital episodes, from second-chance weddings and fatal car crashes to law suits, abusive husbands, and romantic rivals. Yet Forest of Gray City never devolves into melodrama, thanks to the quiet, relaxed presentation of the story. Artist Jung-Hyun Uhm relies on close-ups and body language instead of idle chatter to suggest her characters’ feelings. Midway through volume one, for example, there’s a lovely sequence in which Bum-Moo consoles his drunken, agitated roommate. Yun-Ook—who has just returned from a close friend’s wedding—is feeling unsettled and lonely, masking her anxiety with the defensive assertion that “Marriage isn’t the goal in life!” Bum-Moo offers no words of wisdom or soothing comments, just a glass of water and an arm to lean on. He sits with Yun-Ook until she falls asleep, then retreats to his own room looking dazed and wounded. It isn’t a profound moment, but it’s an honest one, and the kind of scene I wish I found in more manga.
Speaking of Uhm’s artwork, I think it’s both a strength and a weakness of this series. Her character designs are elegant if typical for sunjeong manhwa: both Bum-Moo and Yun-Ook are unnaturally long and slender with pretty faces, giraffe-like necks, and sparkling eyes, making them ideal mannequins for an assortment of elaborate, stylish outfits. The backgrounds, on the other hand, are very minimal. In some scenes, the lack of detail is effective; Yun-Ook’s apartment, for example, looks like my very first studio, complete with rickety, self-assembled furniture and improvised bookshelves. In others scenes, the backdrops look unfinished or hastily drawn, especially when contrasted with the characters’ costumes. On the whole, however, I found the artist’s preference for white spaces and spare interiors an effective metaphor for her characters’ sense of isolation.
Much as I like the artwork and the pacing, the real selling point of Forest of Gray City is its strong, plausible heroine. Yun-Ook isn’t just a collection of quirks and mannerisms, but a young woman with real problems and real aspirations. She’s impetuous, insecure, and quick to take offense, but she’s also focused on her career, protective of Bum-Moo, and determined not to sacrifice her sense of self just to land a husband. There’s a level of emotional authenticity about her character that will resonate with female readers in their twenties and thirties, even if her story seems more firmly rooted in romance novel convention than reality. Highly recommended.
FOREST OF GRAY CITY, VOLS. 1-2 • BY JUNG-HYUN UHM • YEN PRESS • RATING: TEEN (13+)