If you follow South Korean cultural exports — and who doesn’t after “Parasite” bagged the Academy Award for best picture this year — you’d be forgiven for thinking that modern Korea is a tough place to live. It is often portrayed as a sci-fi dystopia, riven by class divisions, where depressed labor drones toil away in a soulless daze, killing themselves at alarming rates. And that’s just the men.
A closer look at how women are navigating the mean streets of Seoul is Frances Cha’s debut novel, “If I Had Your Face.” Published in the U.S. last month, it is a story of gender inequality and lives ruled by the money of men, of impossible beauty standards and their effect on Korean women. For Cha’s characters, the sole means for advance is their looks, which must follow the dictates of girl bands and plastic surgery.
“You have so much and you can do anything you want,” muses the character Kyuri, when she runs into a K-pop starlet. “I would live your life so much better than you if I had your face.”
The desire for social mobility — and our envy of the handsomely moneyed — are universal themes in literature. Still, “If I Had Your Face” will appeal more to women readers: the male characters are cardboard baddies, without dimension or development.
“I didn’t set out to represent or make statements about modern Korean society,” Cha says in an interview with The Japan Times. “I wanted to tell a story about these young women, and wanted each story to be tonally authentic. There were themes that I wanted to explore specifically and I loved setting my characters in those worlds.”
Told in shifting first-person perspectives and plain young-adult novel prose, we first hear from Ara, a mute hairstylist at a salon in the downtown Gangnam district, and then her housemate Kyuri, who works at a so-called “room salon,” a club with karaoke rooms that serve as a front for prostitution. Their friend Sujin hopes to find work at Kyuri’s salon once her face heals from her plastic surgery.
A former editor for CNN in Seoul, Cha writes about life in the city with an intimate eye for detail. She moved to Korea at age 11 and lived there until 2013, when CNN moved her to Hong Kong.
“During my time at CNN, I got the rigorous training of writing every day about Korea for an international audience,” says Cha, who mixes social reportage into the sweep of her novel.
“I originally thought of the book as an interconnected group of short stories. I liked the idea of setting it in an ‘office-tel’ (a building with studio apartments and office space for young professionals) because my mother’s house in Korea is right next to one. I always see young women going in and out of the building at all hours, and I know that so many stories are happening there.”
Some readers may wonder if the characters’ problems are self-induced. Like Lily Bart, the young heroine of Edith Wharton’s feminist classic “The House of Mirth,” Cha’s 20-something-year-old characters are self-absorbed, chasing dreams in cold, shallow worlds. They want the good life and designer handbags — luxuries that come at a price — all the while looking down on the women that haven’t had surgery. Might the real enemy not be men here, but the trap of mindless materialism?
“I find it interesting that there is this judgement or pity or revulsion about women — both in Korea and elsewhere — who chose to have plastic surgery,” says Cha.
“I hope to invite the reader to reserve judgement toward the characters, who choose this way of obtaining beauty for a chance to make their lives better. There are compelling reasons behind such choices, as there is fallout. I wanted to explore why some of the most extreme cases in such an intense society make the choices that they do.”
Cha says that feedback from Korean readers — both in South Korea and internationally — has been positive, the book striking a familiar chord. But are Korean women really as beauty-obsessed as the novel implies?
“I don’t think there is necessarily more societal pressure to be beautiful in Korea than in other countries,” says Cha. “But there is more pressure about looking put-together. It is considered disrespectful, for example, to appear as if you have not put any thought into your appearance before meeting someone.”
We’ll see if virus lockdowns and Zoom meetings loosen these rigorous standards. But as many aspiring writers worldwide hope to pen their debuts under quarantine, Cha reminds us of the labor that goes into writing novels.
“It took 10 years from the first words on the page to publication,” she explains. “The novel is entirely unrecognizable from its first drafts. The narrator that I had spent the most time on was cut out entirely. She will be the protagonist in my second book, which is due soon.”