Plastic surgery is often associated with South Korea and its cookie-cutter entertainment industry; however, Chinese have caught on to the trend too, with travel agencies advertising “plastic surgery holidays” for Chinese consumers.
The Truth About Beauty tells the story of how difficult life is for a girl that doesn’t conform to society’s expectations for physical beauty. Guo Jing (Bai Baihe) graduates from an elite university with a degree in Chinese literature but fails to find meaningful employment, in no small part due to her lack of beautiful looks – her unrealistically comedic frizzled hair and oversized glasses emphasize her homely appearance. Her boyfriend breaks up with her because of her appearance, describing her as a “car wreck”. Guo Jing sets out to get a double-eyelid surgery and manages to land a job at a prestigious South Korean chaebol.
However, after joining the Korean company, Guo Jing realizes that she has competition in the space of beauty – colleagues considered the most beautiful are sent on the most prestigious business trips, and have exclusive access to the company director, while less attractive colleagues are sent out to poor villages and sit in the furthest confines of the office. After attending a nightclub party, Guo Jing continues her plastic surgery journey by getting augmented breasts, and slimming down her jawline. She eventually seduces her manager, as she gets prettier and prettier with each surgical procedure.
The Truth About Beauty explores a difficult social problem through the lens of humor. Although some critics pan this film for its “age-old sexist double standards” and its failure to “cut deep”, I believe that The Truth About Beauty offers a tractable view on a very serious issue – the vanity of most Asian cultures, and the pressures it presents for modern career-driven women. The Truth About Beauty does not make a value judgement on plastic surgery, opting instead to merely poke fun in a caricature of it. The Truth About Beauty even touches upon family values in a traditional Asian context, as a female colleague is denied a promotion and offered reduced job responsibilities because the company director finds out she has a child.
Although The Truth About Beauty lacks any serious take-away, and elicits no emotional engagement from the audience aside from a few easy laughs, there are few other films that attempt to grapple with this issue. Indeed, many Western audiences may find the Asian obsession with plastic surgery to be appalling.
However, despite The Truth About Beauty‘s comedic nature, it presents a very honest and, though exaggerated, rather accurate perspective on the realities of modern Asia, where the social pressure to conform to a singular perception of beauty has existed for centuries. The unanswered question is whether plastic surgery is a liberating option for women who are forced to conform to these standards to engineer their way up the social ladder, or merely another instrument of societal oppression. Asian students take intense test-prep classes to engineer their way up the academic world and the college-entrance exam – so why not do the same for the world of physical beauty?
The Truth About Beauty (Chinese: 整容日记)—China. Directed by Lam Oi-wah. First released April 2014. Running time 1hr 24min. Starring Bai Baihe, Ronald Cheng, Zhang Yao, and Guo Jingfei.