Every morning, Kim Mo-mi makes her way to work like hundreds of other South Koreans. She takes the subway, sits in her cubicle, gossips with her work friend, gazes fondly at the boss she has a crush on, and stomachs the casual insults that come her way for being ugly. By night, Mo-mi has an alternative life as an internet broadcaster: She puts on a mask and wig to become Mask Girl, and does live streaming performances that leave her audience (all of whom seem to be men) in an erotic tizzy. One night, after a particularly mortifying day, Mo-mi gets drunk and during her live stream, she does a striptease. From this point, Mo-mi’s life plunges into chaos. What follows is shown through the perspective of different characters, each of whom see Mo-mi differently.
With stunning cinematography by Joo Seong-rim and gorgeously-styled locations — Mask Girl’s art director is Ryu Seong-hee, whose credits include Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave (2022) and one of the most haunting K-dramas of last year, Little Women — this is a series that talks about ugliness through beauty. The show brings to life a number of clichés, adding nuance through the elegant visuals and powerhouse performances by a stellar cast. Given the awful things people do in Mask Girl, it’s questionable if the show does much to help dismantle prejudices about being unattractive, but there is a satisfying redemption arc for many of the characters who are scorched by misogyny. Also, the show’s many twists ultimately reveal a very specific target: Christian fundamentalism. While South Korea has no officially designated religion, conservative Christians have long been an influential element in the country’s politics. Numerous Christian groups have been part of right-wing coalitions and the character arc of Mo-mi’s arch nemesis Kyung-ja effectively shows how evangelical Christian thought has grown in popularity in recent decades.
Lee Han-byeol plays Mo-mi as the office worker who comes to life as Mask Girl in the first episode. Her colleague and stalker turns out to be the unassuming Oh-nam (an unrecognisable Ahn Jae-hong, most memorable as one of the male leads in Be Melodramatic), who sits in the cubicle next to Mo-mi’s. Oh-nam discovers Mo-Mi is Mask Girl by chance and is convinced he is her protector — so much so that he kills a man, ostensibly to save Mo-mi. When Oh-nam later attempts to rape Mo-mi, she stabs him to death and disappears.
Oh-nam’s heartbroken mother Kyung-ja (K-drama veteran Yeom Hye-ran, from The Uncanny Counter and The Glory) becomes obsessed with finding her son’s killer. She is convinced Mo-mi was behind Oh-nam’s downfall into perversion and with some concerted online and offline digging, Kyung-ja realises Mo-mi has changed her face using plastic surgery. She tracks Mo-mi and kidnaps her, only to find she’s got the wrong woman. The trussed-up woman Kyung-ja is pointing a gun at is Chun-ae (Han Jae-yi), who works with Mo-mi at a hostess bar.
Post-plastic surgery Mo-mi is a beauty (played by idol turned actor Nana, who starred in the K-drama romance Into the Ring) and Chun-ae tells Kyung-ja that she hates Mo-mi for stealing customers from her. It turns out Chun-ae is lying. She and Mo-mi are actually friends and Chun-ae spun this story of enmity to get Kyung-ja off Mo-mi’s back. The two friends decide to run away together — Chun-ae from an abusive boyfriend (whom she and Mo-mi kill), and Mo-mi from Kyung-ja. By the end of the fourth episode, Chun-ae has died while trying to protect Mo-mi from Kyung-ja, and Kyung-ja is in the bottom of a lake. After being on the run for a year, Mo-mi surrenders to the police.
In episode five we learn that prior to giving herself up, Mo-mi became pregnant after Oh-nam raped her. While on the run, Mo-mi has a daughter whom she names Mi-mo. She leaves the infant with her mother. Mi-mo grows up troubled, partly because her grandmother is coldly unaffectionate and partly because she’s tormented in school after school for being Mask Girl’s daughter. Mi-mo’s only source of comfort is an old woman who sells snacks outside one of the schools she attends. What Mi-mo doesn’t realise is that the old woman is Kyung-ja (who has not only survived Mo-mi trying to drown her to death, but has also got herself a new face via plastic surgery). Not only is Kyung-ja following Mi-mo, she’s the one who makes sure every school finds out that Mi-mo is Mask Girl’s daughter.
Meanwhile, Mo-mi is in prison and the ageing convict is now played by Go Hyun-jung. When a group of Christian volunteers come to the prison, Mo-mi realises Kyung-ja didn’t die in the lake. She is still alive and planning to kill Mi-mo because Kyung-ja wants Mo-mi to suffer the way Kyung-ja did after her son’s death.
Kyung-ja is shown from early on to be a devout Christian and the show subtly points out how her faith is something of a delusion. Her facade of goodness and morality is a mask much like the one Mo-mi wore — both women are hiding different kinds of ugliness. However, there’s an innocence to Mo-mi’s mask, which lets her be the person she wants to be without judgement. Kyung-ja's mask hides a sinister and monstrous side. Christian morality becomes both a justification to inflict pain as well as an indication of hypocrisy in Mask Girl.
In the final episode, Kyung-ja tries to kill Mi-mo by suffocating her to death in an underground cellar, despite knowing Mi-mo is both innocent and her own granddaughter. This is her way of holding Mo-mi responsible for killing Oh-nam (though admittedly by this time, logical thinking has long left Kyung-ja's mind palace). A terrible spiral of violence follows, in which mothers must suffer horrifically in order to save their daughters. Despite Kyung-ja's relentless determination, Mi-mo’s mother, grandmother and the one friend she made in school are able to get Mi-mo out.
Just when mother and daughter think they’re safe, Kyung-ja stumbles out of her lair, intent upon murder, and sees the police have surrounded the premise. (They’re looking for Mo-mi, who has escaped prison to save Mi-mo.) A delighted and delusional Kyung-ja sees the flashing lights of police cars and says, “Wow. My Lord has sent his army!” Hye-ran raises her gun in Mo-mi and Mi-mo’s direction and in quick succession, two shots are fired. One hits Mo-mi, who used her body to shield Mi-mo. The other, from the police, gets Kyung-ja. As Kyung-ja slumps to the ground, blood squirting out of the bullet wound in her temple, we can rest assured she’s unlikely to resurrect her way out of this one.
Mask Girl ends with Mi-mo finding a home with her friend’s family. In the final scene, she sits and watches old videos of Mo-mi as a little girl, performing for a crowd and delighting in the applause.