Murder, secret identities and plastic surgery stories galore make up Mask Girl, an exciting new Korean thriller series based on a webtoon of the same name. It sticks out from the other K-dramas that Netflix (NFLX) has to offer, making bold choices (with bolder social commentary) à la Squid Game. The show swings for the fences with the sheer number of twists and turns it has to offer, and that makes for a strong start. However, Mask Girl ends up cracking under the pressure of its own cleverness.
At its most basic level, Mask Girl is about a woman who has suffered by being, in many other characters’ words, ugly. Kim Mo-mi once dreamed of being a famous performer, but her looks (as well as bullying comments from her mother and her peers) got in the way from a very young age. Now an adult working a dull accounting job, Mo-mi lives out her fantasy online, dancing and flirting with men on live streams. She has a sizable fanbase, one that she keeps in the dark by covering her face with a mask. But when an unrequited crush sets her off, she starts down a path of no return.
There are several others who occupy Mo-mi’s story, including co-worker and avid Mask Girl fan Ju Oh-nam (Ahn Jae-hong) as well as his protective mother Kim Kyung-ja (Yeom Hye-ran). All of their narrative threads knot together across six episodes, with Mask Girl taking an anthology approach: each episode is named for a different character, and each episode takes on the overarching story from the perspective of that character. The device gets tired as the show goes on and the character connections become more tenuous, even if the individual episodes make for good self-contained viewing.
That said, Mask Girl has its beats of brilliance. The first two episodes are some of the most engaging and intelligent two hours of television that Netflix has produced this year. The show operates at its peak in “Kim Mo-Mi” and “Ju Oh-nam,” playing with genres like anime, horror, and romance to make something wholly original. The show is incredibly savvy about gender dynamics, as Mo-mi’s insecurities make her crave male attention while Oh-nam embodies sleazy, sweaty incel culture. The role of an emerging internet culture is highlighted (these episodes take place in 2009), complete with all of the beauty standards and softcore sex work we’re more than aware of today. It’s an occasionally uncomfortable viewing experience, and that’s by design—both Mo-mi and Oh-nam are used to being outcasts, but the ability to have an anonymous online presence has exacerbated their issues and added to the dehumanized feeling they were both already well acquainted with.
That detached impulse leads into and supports one of the show’s more knowingly silly devices, where characters are played by multiple actors thanks to miraculous cosmetic surgery procedures. Mo-mi is played by three actresses across the series; newcomer Lee Han-byeol gets the difficult job of being the “ugly” version, and she pulls it off with poignant pathos; 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 sizable jump in time. It’s a technique ripped straight from the soaps (a universal television genre, even if it goes by different names), and Mask Girl owes much to such melodramas, both good and bad.
The series ultimately falls into the same trap as many soapy series, prioritizing surprise plot developments over grounded character work. The latter half of Mask Girl tries to provoke gasps of shock and awe, but its reveals are so forced it’s more likely to produce frustrated sighs. The show loses its clear sense of purpose the longer it goes on, and the story morphs into a half-baked revenge plot that does little to address the questions brought up earlier in the series. Mask Girl starts out superbly, with all of the ideas in the world and then some about how it wants to portray real, painfully normal people, but it can’t keep up with its own complexities.