‘Mask Girl’ Review: Netflix K-drama, Issue of Societal Beauty Standards

‘Mask Girl’ series deftly captures the invisibility, cruelty, and assumptions experienced by those who don’t meet socially acceptable standards of beauty.

Mask Girl is a riveting new Korean thriller series based on a webtoon of the same name that features murder, covert identities, and numerous tales of plastic surgery. It stands out from the other K-dramas available on Netflix, making daring decisions, like Squid Game. With the sheer volume of turns and twists the show offers, it swings for the fences and gets off to a strong start. Mask Girl eventually breaks under the weight of its own brilliance, though.

Mask Girl is essentially the story of a woman who has suffered because, in the words of many other characters, she is “ugly.” Kim Mo-mi once had aspirations of becoming a well-known performer, but from a very young age, her appearance stood in the way. Mo-mi, a grown woman working a boring accounting job, indulges in her fantasies online by dancing and making out with guys on live streams. She has a sizable following that she keeps hidden by wearing a mask over her face. But when a crush that she does not get back sets her off, there is no turning back.

Show highlights the different experiences that result from shared underlying problems as it depicts the complex challenges that both men and women face. While one of the characters uses objectification to seek approval, the other uses it to feel confident and connected to others. The depiction of the gendered contrast is done with care and adds to the story’s complexity.

Mask Girl does have some brilliant beats. Some of the most interesting and insightful two hours of television that Netflix has produced this year can be found in the first two episodes. In “Kim Mo-Mi” and “Ju Oh-nam,” the show performs at its best, fusing genres like romance, horror, and anime to create something wholly unique.

The show is extremely astute when it comes to gender dynamics, as Oh-nam personifies sleazy, sweaty incel culture and Mo-mi’s insecurities cause her to crave male attention. In these episodes, which take place in 2009, the importance of an emerging internet culture is highlighted, complete with all the modern-day beauty standards and softcore sex work.

Mo-mi and Oh-nam are accustomed to being outcasts, but the ability to maintain an anonymous online presence has exacerbated their problems and added to the dehumanized feeling they were both already well acquainted with. This makes for an occasionally uncomfortable viewing experience, but that is intentional.

A more knowingly silly device in the show is one where characters are played by multiple actors as a result of miraculous cosmetic surgery procedures. This detached impulse sets up and supports this device. The character of Mo-mi is portrayed by three different actresses throughout the series: K-pop star Nana takes over as Mo-mi’s new face, but she wears her ugly past well; and Korean TV veteran Go Hyun-jung steps in for the final episode, after a significant jump in time. Mask Girl owes a lot to such melodramas, both good and bad, and it uses a technique straight out of the soaps, a universal television genre even though it goes by different names.

The final act of Mask Girl tries to elicit stunned and amazed gasps, but because the revelations are so forced, it’s more likely to result in irritated sighs. The plot develops into a half-baked revenge plot that does little to address the issues raised earlier in the series, and the show loses its distinct sense of purpose as it goes on. Mask Girl has a fantastic beginning and all the ideas in the world about how it wants to portray real, agonizingly normal people, but it can’t keep up with its own complexity.

The “Mask Girl” series sparks conversations about important issues like plastic surgery and societal expectations. It highlights the propensity to make fun of people who choose cosmetic enhancements while omitting to acknowledge how societal attitudes contribute to insecurities. The show challenges viewers to consider who is really to blame in situations like these.