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‘Flowers of Fire’ Review: A Compelling Exploration of South Korea’s Feminist Movement

4 Stars

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Many are aware of the influence of social movements against sexual violence, such as the #MeToo campaign in the United States. However, very few Americans have been exposed to the origins and history of South Korea’s feminist movement, which has similarly blossomed in recent years. Hawon Jung’s “Flowers of Fire” aims to provide readers with firsthand accounts that not only allow them to understand the uniqueness of the feminist movement in South Korea, but also give readers the tools to recognize the key differences between the fight for gender equality in South Korea and abroad.

The book begins with an anecdotal account of a young Korean woman at a feminist rally at Seoul’s theater district of Hyehwa, then quickly transitions into records of South Korea’s deep-rooted patriarchal society. Jung repeatedly relies on this structure to provide readers with cultural and historical awareness as well as personal perspectives — a necessary refinement in a book where explanations of Korean words and traditions such as “molka” and “hoesik” are needed to illuminate personal accounts.

Another strength of the book is Jung’s decision to separate the book into four parts. As the history of South Korea’s feminist movement is nuanced and lengthy, each of these sections help segment the book to explain the movement in the clearest way possible. The first part — “#MeToo, #WithYou,” — clarifies the recent explosion of the movement in Korea; the second section — “Where Did All the Girls Go?” — focuses on early feminist activists fighting against Korea’s deeply patriarchal society; and the third segment — “My Life is Not Your Porn” — explains the popularity of hidden spy cameras in female bathrooms. The final section, “My Body,” is dedicated to South Korea’s beauty standards and other prominent societal pressures on the female body. This division of the book allows readers to mentally compartmentalize key aspects of South Korea’s movement in order to emphasize the elements of the #MeToo movement that are unique to South Korea.

In addition, Jung, who is a former Seoul correspondent for the AFP news agency, uses a very objective tone throughout the book — with the exception of the book’s signature anecdotes — which complements her comprehensive research (as evidenced by her 47 pages of references). Jung’s thorough use of both primary and secondary sources allows her to make objective assertions on the visible impact of the movement by effectively communicating statistical evidence and public opinion data, which is heavily cited in all four parts of her book.

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Jung’s choice to balance primary and secondary sources, however, tends to detract from the power of personal accounts. Although the historical explanations and public opinion data allow lots of detailed information to be packed into the book, this strategy tends to cut into the stories of real women’s encounters with sexism. Sometimes within the same chapter, Jung will begin with a firsthand account of a Korean woman dealing with sexism and then abruptly switch to a new story, leaving readers longing for a sense of closure or merely just more words about the previous story. While the sheer number and diverse array of personal accounts that Jung shares — ranging from the anecdotes of attorney Seo Ji-Hyun to student Sophie Park to incest-survivor-turned-activist Blue Butterfly — is impressive, readers may feel that not enough pages were dedicated to each individual’s complicated story.

Overall, “Flowers of Fire” is a compelling exploration of South Korea's feminist movement that offers readers a nuanced understanding of its history and cultural context. Jung’s comprehensive research and objective tone make this book a valuable contribution to literature on the feminist movement in South Korea. While this book could be improved with more time and dedication to individuals’ personal anecdotes, “Flowers of Fire” ultimately still serves its purpose of illuminating the complexities of gender inequality and social movements in contemporary South Korea.

—Staff Writer Allison S. Park can be reached at allison.park@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @allisonskypark.

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