Historic Futures of the Korean Wave

Tallulah Griffith

If I Had Your Face
By Frances Cha.
Penguin Random House, 288 pp. £12.99 [Foyles]

Amid K-pop’s international success, and following Parasite’s Best Picture win, the world is turning its attention to Korean cultural exports. The Chinese call it hallyu or ‘flow of Korea’—a trend towards mass consumption of Korean culture across Asia at the turn of the twenty-first century. From K-pop, to K-drama, to kimchi, Korea has emerged as a cultural power. For many Westerners the conversation around Korean culture centres on the dystopian potential of its ultramodern landscape; perhaps most visibly in Frances Cha’s - If I Had Your Face. In her debut novel, set in modern-day Seoul, Cha does not aim to provide social commentary; regardless, she evokes Seoul as a powerful cocktail of soju and cosmetic potions, conjuring the city as both toxic and intoxicating. Grappling with the fallout of plastic surgery and implications of K-pop stardom, Cha’s novel depicts the Eastern futurism which Westerners frequently interpret as fascinating and frightening in equal measure. It is a picture of manic mass media and artificially modified bodies. We are familiar with a narrative of Asia’s forthcoming dominance, what historian Niall Ferguson famously forecast as the ‘reorientation of the world’ towards the East. The rise of Asian cultures presents a threat to Western hegemony, and not everyone will be so willing to ride the Korean wave.

Cha’s fiction follows four working class women sharing an apartment complex in present day Gangnam, and separately navigating the cut-throat consumerism of Seoul’s business district. Ara, whose childhood assault left her mute, is a hairdresser who clings desperately to a job in which she is treated poorly. Struggling to connect with those around her, Ara finds solace in K-pop escapism, where her silence follows her monastic worship of ‘Crown’ band member Taein. Ara’s neighbour, Kyuri, works at a very different kind of salon. Kyuri’s significant surgical enhancements—modelled on Taein’s new love interest and fellow idol Candy—have secured her employment at Ajax, one of the most exclusive room salons for businessmen’s parties, where women are all but ornamental, and typically bound by debt. The other two, Wonna and Miho, feature to a lesser extent, the former an unhappy newly-wed whose pregnancy prompts a reflection on childhood abuse, and the latter an orphan artist moving into high society after a scholarship to the US changes her life. Ara and Kyuri emerge as the most developed characters, set against a burgeoning world of virtual communities, technologies of the body, and the commodification of stardom, where futuristic innovations are indistinct from mundane realities.

Korean culture is characterised by this overlap of the realistic and the fantastical, the rural and the global, the artistic and the commercial. These contradictions are, in part, what is so intriguing to Western onlookers. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite deploys an absurd amalgam of Hollywood conventions; K-pop is careful convergence of choreography, fashion, and musical genres that appeal to a wide audience in Korea and beyond. Even the ‘officetel’ which Cha’s characters share is a Korean portmanteau of ‘office’ and ‘hotel’, points to a dominant combinatory logic. Readers bear witness to a hybrid creation, a collision of traditional values and postmodern ideals in the kaleidoscope of Seoul.

This preposterous temporal overlap is not exclusive to Korea, but it is particular, striking, and the result of a complex history. After the Korean War, Korea’s rapid, state-driven economic development— the ‘Miracle on the Han River’—transformed a poor and largely agricultural society into a wealthy and industrial Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) member in less than half a century. From the 1960s to the 1990s Korea underwent compressed modernisation, a dizzying, condensed material expansion both breathless and inevitably precarious. Korea’s transformation did not originate in a major indigenous revolution, meaning that older, more conservative ideologies and institutions remain in large part intact. However, alternative ideals have poured in from international sources, producing a haphazard coincidence of indigenous and foreign, traditional and postmodern. In this regard, Korea’s cultural difference from Western societies is one of degree rather than kind. There is a significant generational gap in Korea’s modern state compared to other industrialised countries, where the social and psychological effects of drastic change, felt elsewhere over the course of a century or more, are instead felt in a matter of decades. Dependent on locality, wealth, generation, or class, the life experiences of Korean citizens may span civilisations.

Some of Korea’s most noted cinematic offerings centre precisely on the calamitous consequences of sudden onset modernisation. In his 2016 Train to Busan, Yeon Sang-ho plays on the zombie apocalypse genre to gesture to viral late capitalism, and urban overcrowding. His fast-moving zombies suggest a high-speed consumer culture at fever pitch. Like Parasite, Yeon’s critical triumph is undergirded by class warfare. Train carriages, occupied by a representative cross section of Korean society, contain the virus and mirror ruthless social stratification; the sliding doors operate like a glass ceiling, with many finding that the door is slammed in their face, and the key to survival is a combination of luck and nepotism.
The film’s scariest figure is found, in fact, not among the dead but the living. Yon-suk, the ruthlessly self-interested business executive, provides the very embodiment of corporate evil, and even Seok-woo, one of the film’s central characters, is revealed to have bought shares in the company responsible for the disaster. In Yeon’s zombie apocalypse, globalising, modernising, and industrialising powers arrive at breakneck pace, with catastrophic consequences. Here, the traditional and the postmodern collide: the death of elderly sisters Jong-Il and In-gil epitomise the outmoded family unit, and the film ultimately embraces open social structures, cutting across class lines, where the sacrifices of homeless and working-class passengers are triumphed.
Likewise, Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 monster film The Host casts the ‘Miracle on the Han’ as a deadly and unanticipated monster, spawned from a mistake in an American laboratory, and sustained by its predation on working class families. The narrative centres on the plight of food vendor Park Gang-du, who struggles to rescue his daughter when she is kidnapped by the colossal amphibian which has suddenly emerged from the river. The film is highly critical of this ‘miracle’ of modernity, taking up traditional archery as a means of counterattack, and—as in Yeon’s work—enlisting the help of those left behind by economic development: the homeless population.

Expeditious industrialisation has been accompanied by underdeveloped social safety nets. If social spending can be taken as an index of inequality, Korea’s historical budget allocation is telling. In 2005, where OECD member countries averaged an expenditure of 18.9% GDP on social spending, Korea came in at under 5%. Though this proportion has grown rapidly, to 9.2% in 2010 and 10.4% in 2015, it stayed well below the OECD average of over 20%.

These deeply entrenched class divides are written into the world of Cha’s novel, where intergenerational wealth is a key source of inequality. Take Wonna’s husband, who struggles to support her in his middle-income job. Here, Cha gestures to the acute disparities between conglomerates dominated by chaebols (rich families with superior resources and higher salaries), and smaller businesses. Miho, by contrast, has defied the odds in her social progress, but only by way of trans-Pacific relocation. When Kyuri reflects on Miho’s enviable opportunities, jealousy inspires her to quip that ‘I’ve heard [Miho] speak English before and it didn’t sound that fluent.’ Spoken English, or lack thereof, is a very real means for preserving social hierarchies in Korea, known as the ‘English Divide’. Typically, high achieving students will have spent some time living abroad, as English test scores are fundamental to job and university applications, exacerbating the achievement gap along class lines. Miho’s humble beginnings and (supposedly) broken English speak to both the global outlook and the culturally specific class structures which define contemporary Korean society.

Miho’s recollection of learning English as an orphan is also telling. Describing her childhood at the ‘Loring Centre’, she observes that onlookers were amazed that the orphaned children had any kind of mental capacities, to the extent that ‘In our city, “Loring” was synonymous with “retarded” ’. Indeed, ‘Loring’ became such a staple of the vernacular that many local children were oblivious to the fact that it is not a ‘real English word.’ Those with privilege have a command of a language which holds symbolic capital in the global job market. English deepens the divide which uphold the status quo. What is fascinating here is the coexistence of the foreign and local, the traditional and globalised, the underdeveloped and the overdeveloped. Something similar may be said of Japan, which has also been subject to drastic change over the course of the last century, and whose exports range from Sony to Studio Ghibli. Korea’s cultural dichotomies are nonetheless particular, and its rapidity of modernisation and captivation of a global audience unparalleled in scale. All countries are the product of their history; in the case of Korea, we find a striking palimpsest.

Among the skyscrapers of Seoul, room salons like Kyuri’s confirm that class divides are not the only deeply entrenched social stratifications still intact. In Kyuri’s workplace, the extravagant urban landscape of modern Korea crosses with a centuries-old patriarchal tradition. When Miho suggests she will paint Kyuri’s portrait ‘as a ghost’, ‘a gisaeng series [...] Syringes plunging into her face and wrists’, she reconfigures the courtesans of Korean folklore as a vision of technologically supercharged body modification. Gisaeng, originating in the early Goryeo era (935-1392), barely exceeded the social status of slaves, and yet maintained regular discourse with society’s most powerful. Similarly, room salons signpost very real social divides; in the novel, on the rare instance that a woman of status is invited to accompany the businessmen to the room salon, Kyuri struggles not to voice her surprise. Syringe-punctured, Kyuri participates in a centuries old cultural mythology injected with futuristic aesthetics. Both royal courts and room salons serve as important sites of male power, and Kyuri’s surreal, high-tech half-life speaks to the persistence of patriarchal tradition carried over into present-day Korea.  

In Seoul, surgeries like Kyuri’s are commonplace. Korea is the world’s plastic surgery capital, with a third of women under 30 undergoing some kind of cosmetic procedure. The motivation, says Cha, is cut-throat competition. Korea is the most educated country in the world - 63% of the population pursue university study. As Korean society is highly codified in terms of how appearance conveys social status, many seek to surgically enhance their career options. There is not, however, a one-to-one mapping of surgery to status; unnatural looking surgery is socially unacceptable. There is even a buzzword for those who fall foul of this social faux pas: the sŏnghyŏng gwemul, literally ‘cosmetic monsters’. It is telling, perhaps, that Kyuri cannot accrue the cultural capital held by Miho, who is noted for her natural beauty. This beauty not only lends itself to social advancement because of a preferential bias towards attractive people, but also because Miho’s natural appearance correlates to wealth.

Western viewers tend to be critical of trends like Japanese kawaii, or Korean esteem of aegyo sal, the puffy under-eye considered appealingly youthful. In an instance of Cha’s subtly sophisticated writing, Kyuri describes the parts of her face to which sensation never returned. ‘That’s what hand mirrors and selfie modes were for—to check if food or drink were dribbling down my chin.’ Kyuri has cut away the parts of herself that feel in a ruthless bid for economic improvement; she relies on selfies for a confirmation of self, locating that validation in surface images. In the novel, as in modern-day Korea, pioneering technologies interweave with historic social divisions; the Western audience is critical, perhaps, only because that patriarchal past is more clearly writ at surface level.

One of Cha’s wry, moneyed characters observes, ‘Our country has become such an encouraging place.’ Ara, Kyuri, and their contemporaries contend with various fallacies of progress, and ask to what extent individual women can be blamed for their part in maintaining the status quo. Nursing her hangover after a night of heavy drinking with room salon regulars, Kyuri bemoans that her friends ‘would think it’s my fault for making terrible choices,’ a verdict which might extend to her lifestyle at large. But ‘Even as a girl,’ says Kyuri, ‘I knew the only chance I had was to change my face.’ Kyuri determined to facelift herself out of poverty; she sought out a plastic surgeon to improve her social status, and employment in a room salon to better her economic standing. In the process, she becomes bound to Ajax by debt. Kyuri’s reflections are perhaps the most revealing of false standards for women’s lib; commenting on her clients’ overexposure to American porn, she notes that ‘It is apparently very ridiculous and intense, but often focuses on women’s pleasure, which is measured by how loud she moans.’ Even as Kyuri champions her access to over-the-counter birth control pills, as opposed to their availability by prescription in the US, the reader is left wondering what should be taken as a legitimate measure of freedom. Pointing to the US, Cha asks us to recognise the global perpetuation of patriarchal processes in narratives of progress.

Korea’s innovative surgeries reflect both its deep history and advanced technologies. As revealed by Kyuri’s reproduction of Candy’s facial surgeries, the link between media saturation and the prevalence of cosmetic measures is roughly as direct in Korea as in the US. K-pop centres on manufactured and commercialised public images; indeed, the careful curation of an idol’s public image extends beyond style. Many are subject to the selection of pre-set personality types in their training processes, programmes in music and choreography which can last several years before a group’s debut. Idols’ faces, it seems, become a sort of avatar for chosen characters. Emerging after the Asian economic crisis of 1997, which prompted entertainment industries to devise methods for more secure revenue, K-pop is the result of carefully researched and internationally sourced music and mass media. It is a phenomenally successful brand of the mass culture dominating postmodern societies, characterised by simulation, and visual overload. But just as plastic surgery has deeply entrenched social stratifications, so too has K-pop been brought under traditional ideologies.

In If I Had Your Face, Ara compensates for her inability to converse with those in her immediate social circle by delving into an online world of K-pop fandom. Much of Ara’s narrative concerns her schoolgirl fantasies about Taein, and the changeability of her mood and outlook depending on developments in her hero’s life. As we might expect, networks like Ara’s become highly protective of their chosen star, and frequently condemn the media scrutiny and mismanagement the bands are subject to. That these girls use online platforms to express their somewhat obsessive interest is to be expected; that these virtual communities have been subsumed under Korean family structures is not. We can conceptualise these networks in terms of the ‘parasocial’, a term used to describe deeply felt connections to those we do not know personally. In Korea, these parasocial bonds are figured in familial terms, where the fan base is encouraged to make sense of their devotion to an idol as that to an older brother. The promotion of this imagined relation is highly transparent. We need only recall Psy’s hook, ’Oppan Gangnam Style’—or roughly, ‘big brother has Gangnam style.’

From orphanage origins to childhood abuse and trauma, Cha’s characters each develop volatile relationships with their families. Ara’s mother is fixated on marrying off her daughter—whose prospects are limited by her disability—and Ara’s silence speaks volumes as she tries to navigate the gulf of the generational divide. Aiming to speak back against these more traditional structures, Ara finds solace in virtual communities, through which fans build group identities in increasingly isolated and competitive social worlds. There is a tension, inevitably, between the ways these collectives stand in for family units and are also routed back into them. K-pop encourages highly participatory cultural practices, which management companies capitalise on to build loyal fan bases. Each of Cha’s four intersecting narratives follow the speaker’s relationship to a man, whether that be Kyuri’s romantic attachment to a client, Wonna’s relationship with her husband, or Miho’s difficulty trusting her wealthy boyfriend. Ara’s affective connection to Taein far exceeds Wonna’s commitment to her husband, a contrast which perhaps lends the parasocial bond validity. At large, Korean society is conceived of as an extended family, and the acceptance of virtual connections as derived from those structures is but another instance of the fascinating mix of past, present and future ideals visible in the Korean cultural landscape.

There is a word, ‘retrofuturism’, which pins down a kind of nostalgia for futures that never materialised. We are captivated by steampunk elaborations on Victorian technology, or the idea that a time machine might manifest as a DeLorean. For the West, what is so fascinating about Korea is the coexistence of such contradictory value systems, where the traditional and the postmodern are uttered in the same breath. Conventional ideals of family, gender, and class emerge in stark contrast to a postmodern morality which champions self-expression, individual freedom, and intimate extra-familial bonds. Whether in generic conventions or temporal bounds, Korean exports show us how the lines might be drawn otherwise. Through hallyu we can gain a sense of how Western and other Eastern cultures might have developed, or indeed might yet. We would do well to catch the wave.

Frances Cha, If I Had Your Face (2020)

Bong Joon-ho, Parasite (2019)

Yeon Sang-ho, Train to Busan (2016)

Bong Joon-ho, The Host (2006)

Editor’s Note: Tallulah Griffith is a freelance writer. I first encountered her prose in the Oxford Review of Books and felt I had to host her on Chargé d'affaires. If you would like to read more of her work, I would recommend the following:

Waste, Value, and Use – The Oxford Review of Books

Coping Mechanisms – The Oxford Review of Books

Identity and Identicality in Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half – The Cherwell

Chargé D'affaires - Depuis 2020