(This is the second in an original series about new wave feminist writers in Korea) ANDREA PLATE WRITES — Is this the face of modern-day feminism in Seoul?
If I Had Your Face, Frances Cha’s debut novel (Ballantine Books), tells the story of four young women struggling to succeed in cosmetically competitive Seoul, the plastic surgery capital of the world, where one in three persons under age thirty will most likely have had “work done.” Cha’s heroines are defined not by their intelligence, personality or achievements, but by a kind of precision beauty — surgically sculpted facial features that make or break their futures.
Author Cha is truly cosmopolitan: born and educated in America, now based in New York, a former travel and culture editor for CNN in Seoul and Hong Kong, she knows one, indisputable truth: All women, everywhere on earth, know the agony of seeing another woman and thinking, “If I had your face…”
Cha’s story unfolds in brief, easy-to-read chapters alternately told in the first-person voices of her principal characters. Kyuri is an “electrically beautiful,” twenty-something fighter-fish who swims from the low-life, low class joints of South Korea’s red light district upstream, to the high-class, high-cost service industry of room salons along the Beauty Belt in Apgujeong, where men pay dearly to drink alcohol in the company of beautiful women. She snags a top spot at Ajax, the high-end salon which pays the highest fees to “the prettiest top ten per cent,” in addition to this big bonus: employees don’t have to have sex with their clients.
Kyuri is not just another pretty face. She’s the supermodel of cosmetic surgery, with double eyelid stitches; jaw and cheekbone reduction (otherwise known as v-line surgery); eyelash extensions; and eye-line tattoos, not to mention infinity pools of skin care lotions to achieve the dewy as dawn look all day, every day.
“You get used to it,” Kyuri says, referring to the loss of sensation in key areas of her face, post-surgery. “That’s what hand mirrors and selfie modes were for, to check if food or drink were dribbling down my chin.”.
So, is this or is it not the face of modern-day feminism in Seoul? Yes, and no. Cha’s Kyuri has achieved financial independence and power, yet her fortune hinges entirely on the fierce, fickle appetites of men for beauty and sex—and the madams who feed them. Despite her high pay, Kyuri struggles to stay financially afloat, citing the cost of “touch-up surgeries, just small ones,” which are minimal “but they add up.” Add to that a steep cultural stigma of shame. Like Sunja, the lead protagonist in Jin Min Lee’s brilliant 2017 novel Pachinko , shamed by an planned pregnancy, Cha’s Kyuri is well aware of women’s victimization—some salons girls suffer jail, prostitution fines, beatings and vilification by society. .
Cha’s four heroines’ voices comprise a compelling chorus of words and thoughts, alternately harmonious and cacophonous. Miho, abandoned in infancy at a Cheongju orphanage, vows never to abandon her two dreams: to be an artist—the lucky and talented girl wins a scholarship to art school in America; and to have four kids back in South Korea. Kyuri claps back: “No surgery will be able to fix your vagina after that.”
Ara is a full-time hair stylist who spends 100 per cent of her workday styling the prettiest ten percenters’ hair. Off-hours, she follows the life and loves of a perfectly chiseled K-pop boy band star—the closest she will ever get to glamor.
Occasionally, Cha uses humor to light the way through the dark underbelly of Seoul. Says the plain-looking, plain-spoken Wonna, when asked on what basis she chose her husband: “…this man, not only was he kind, but he had a dead mother. If we had a child, she would not interfere.” When Kyuri is tempted to get “the ‘Strapless Package,’ which includes Botox for the back of the shoulders [and] ‘fat kill’ injections for the underarms,” you kind of have to laugh…Or cry?
Sujin once worked as a maid at a “love motel” (where rooms are rented by the hour to facilitate fast romantic flings). She recommends this line of work for weight loss— client turnover is so fast, maids don’t have time for meal breaks. Sujin’s long-range goal is to work her way up from a flailing nail salon to a pricey room salon. The path forward is brutal, including a two-month recovery period due to excessive facial swelling and mouth pain. Eventually, her beauty blooms, as does her awareness, however, of female victimization; while she enjoys “being pretty right now,” Sujin advises the long-suffering Kyuri: “You seem really stressed out. I think you need to find a different kind of job.”
This is a witty but darkly amusing novel. The author’s no-holds-barred writing style makes for fast-moving, fearless prose comprised of short, simple sentences. Cha writes: “Nondescript signs hang above darkened stairways, leading to underground worlds where men pay to act like bloated kings,” and “When I ask young people, What about the future? What will you do when tomorrow comes and you have spent everything already? They say they will just die. And that is why Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world.”
Cha’s stark portrayal of a cosmetically depraved Seoul should come as no shock to American readers. This April, the Beverly Hills City Council in southern California voted to repeal its ‘social distancing’ moratorium on cosmetic surgeries — in the midst of a raging pandemic! Desperate times call for desperate measures. Alas, women the world over are united in their desperation to look young and beautiful every day. All day. Every year.
Do drastic surgical means justify the glamorous ends? Of course not. The price of perennial beauty is all too high and cannot be measured in dollars and sense.
So what’s new? Louisa May Alcott’s Amy March frets over the shape of her nose in the iconic 1868 classic Little Women. Liane Moriarty’s Jessica Chandler injects and implants her way to an idealized self in her recently published Nine Perfect Strangers. Songstress Jessica Simpson bares all about body-shaming in her widely praised memoir Open Book. With South Korea at the heart of her story, Frances Cha’s novel puts a new face and a new look on an age-old literary theme.
Andrea Plate, Asia Media International’s senior advisor for writing and editing, has degrees in English Literature, Communications-Journalism and Social Welfare/Public Policy from UC Berkeley, USC and UCLA. Her college teaching experience includes Fordham University and Loyola Marymount University. Her most recent book, MADNESS: In the Trenches of America’s Troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, about her years as a senior social worker at the U.S. Veterans Administration, was recently published in Asia and North America by Marshall Cavendish Asia International.