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Face off and two-faced

Posted February. 23, 2013 08:05,   


The 1997 action movie “Face Off,” features facial transplant surgery. A police officer (played by John Travolta) gets the face of a violent criminal (played by Nicolas Cage) in a coma, and sneaks into an organized crime ring. In hockey, a face-off is the dropping of a puck by the referee in a game, and lacrosse is another sport that uses a face-off. The success of the movie resulted in the term “face off” often being used as meaning “face transplant” through surgery.

Can face transplants as depicted in the movie become reality? Plastic surgeons say they do not believe so. If the face is transplanted as in the movie, highly sensitive facial cells could face immune resistance, which can result in the destruction of skin. Changing facial skeleton or scar is not an easy surgical procedure to conduct. In 2005, a hospital in France conducted surgery to transplant facial tissue from a brain-dead person to a woman who had her nose and mouth ripped off by a dog. But such surgery remains in its early development. “Face off surgery,” which plastic surgeons in Seoul’s posh Gangnam district advertise, is an exaggerated expression‍ of general plastic surgery designed to change the overall impression of a person by slightly changing the shape of eyes, nose and face.

Humans are inferior in their capacity to recognize and identify the faces of other people compared to chimpanzees. People identify other faces by combining data on distance and ratio between the eyes, nose and mouth, and hair or mustache. A person likely cannot recognize a person whom he or she met the previous night while drinking at a bar if the former meets the latter in a different setting. People can hardly recognize a TV actor whom they saw on TV in the real world when the latter is encountered off screen. One common mistake is that a witness picks the wrong person as a criminal. In the movie, a police officer conducted an extreme form of undercover probe after undergoing plastic surgery. But in real life, a fugitive on the wanted list can take advantage of plastic surgery to hide his or her identity.

Police were reportedly surprised to find that a 34-year-old suspect in the embezzlement of 4.7 billion won (4.3 million U.S. dollars) looked so different from his mug shot when he was caught Wednesday. Undergoing plastic surgery to enlarge the look of his eyes and elevate his nose, he was recognizable only to his acquaintance. Police even reportedly considered placing fliers of him on the wanted list to plastic surgery clinics to capture him. Efforts to develop security technologies that use physiological information such as iris, finger movements or behavioral information including walking style, apart from facial looks, are gathering momentum. In Korean society, societal leaders are known to have brazen faces through their practices of nationality shopping, favoritism given to ex-ranking officials after retirement from government posts, and plagiarism. Unlike criminals who change their facial appearance through surgery, these leaders have always been two-faced.

Editorial Writer Park Yong (parky@donga.com)