Recently, I had a conversation with someone close to me. Let me call her Hannah. Let’s spell her name H-A-N-N-A-H, so that her name is spelled the same way forward as well as backward. It’s a palindrome name. A palindrome is, quote from Oxford Languages, “a word, phrase, or sequence that reads the same backward as forward.” End quote. Examples that I found are the words madam, noon, civic, level, rotator, deified, and, a bit surprisingly, racecar. Racecar is surprising to me because yes, it is written the same backward as forward, but from the sound of the word, I wouldn’t have guessed it. I hear, with my ears, the word racecar, and I think race and car, separately. But when they’re written down on paper, it’s easier to see with the eyes that the words race and car, together, spell the same backwards and forwards.
And as to the word deified, I can see as well as hear that it sounds and reads the same backward as forward. And in addition to that, the meaning of the word… is nicely meaningful. The meaning is meaningful. Deified. To be worshipped, regarded, or treated as a god. A palindrome.
At any rate, Hannah. It’s a palindrome name, and this palindrome-ness, this symmetry, befits what I’m gonna talk about today.
So, I was talking to Hannah, the other day. We talked about how sometimes, crimes happen and they are completely random. Some crimes aren’t crimes between people who know each other, such as family members or lovers or coworkers or neighbors. Instead, you just walk down the street and a complete stranger stabs you. In fact, the specific example that Hannah mentioned was one such stabbing case. A granny in Korea went to a public bathhouse early in the morning, which is sort of a tradition among some older people. And on the way home, she got stabbed by a complete stranger. And she died. She was murdered on the streets.
And Hannah was upset about it, which, I would say, is a normal reaction. But what I found interesting is that the specific factor that upset her the most about the crime wasn’t that it was a murder, or that it happened to an old lady who couldn’t defend herself, or that it happened in a public place, on the streets.
No, the particular factor that upset Hannah the most was that in this granny murder, there was no apparent motive. This stabber, this murderer, had no personal feelings against the granny. He simply had something against the entirety of the world, and the granny happened to be in his way. She happened to be an easy target, and the guy just stabbed her to death. The lady was strolling home peacefully, doing nobody any kind of harm, and this happened to her. This randomness, this utter lack of predictability, was what upset Hannah so much. If only there had been some kind of explanation. Any explanation.
Fast-forward about two or three days. I had heard about this one series called “Mask Girl.”
It’s on Netflix. I had wanted to watch the series, because I had seen some Youtube shorts for it, and I had heard that the actors did a stellar job, especially one of the actors, Nana, who used to be a K-pop idol and now has been acting for… quite a while now. I’m always curious when people who have a certain public image—say, the public image of being a beautiful perfect K-pop idol—do a 180 and transform into a persona that is totally unexpected. And I had heard that she’d done exactly that in this series, “Mask Girl.” So I had meant to watch it.
The synopsis from Wikipedia is as follows. Quote, ”Kim Mo-mi … , an office worker who is insecure about her looks, becomes a masked internet personality by night — until a chain of unexpected, ill-fated events overtakes her life.” End quote.
From this synopsis, the story sounds like a typical one about extreme lookism in Korea… which is a thing. Compared to the overall world, South Korea can get extremely looks-focused, depending on which circles you navigate.
But look. The water there is great. In Seoul. And I mean this literally. If you live somewhere like California, with hard water, and then visit somewhere like Seoul—give it three days, maximum, and you will feel the difference on your skin. The water there, really, it surprises me every time I go there. Compared to Californian water, it feels almost… slippery. Your skin will naturally improve just by going there. Just by existing there, your skin improves, and so, everyone has, on average, good skin. And people don’t wear thick makeup there. Even when they do, they do the groundwork first. They don’t slap makeup on bad skin, they first make the skin better, otherwise you cannot get that perfection of a smooth makeup look that people go for. So, I guess the bar is set very high over there, but also… the environment is ideal. Seoul is an extremely centralized, highly connected city. There is no place where you cannot get an internet connection. And there are cameras everywhere, from people’s phones, but also security cameras. You are literally on camera everywhere. And so, I’m not very interested in the lookism theme on its own. Not everyone living in that environment is afflicted by lookism and the recent years, leading up to the year 2023, have been a period in which there has been more diversity than ever before. So if lookism had been the only thing that “Mask Girl” had going for itself, I would not have watched it.
Bu the particular element that caught my eye was the symmetry of the episode titles, and the names within said episode titles. Hannah was mainly frustrated about the randomness of the granny murder. What story was “Mask Girl” trying to tell with its evident symmetry?
Now, there are seven episodes in total, and they are each named after one of the characters. I’m gonna read them. The Korean names might sound complicated. But I think the episode title and the names themselves say a lot about this series. So.
- Episode 1’s title: Kim Mo-mi. (김모미)
- Episode 2: Ju Oh-nam (주오남)
- Episode 3: Kim Kyung-Ja (김경자)
- Episode 4: Kim Chun-ae (김춘애)
- Episode 5: Kim Mi-mo (김미모)
- Episode 6: Kim Mo-mi (김모미)
- Episode 7: Mo-mi and Mi-mo (모미와 미모)
Were you able to hear it? Episode 1’s title is Kim Mo-mi. Episode 6 has the same title. And Episode 5’s title is Kim Mi-mo, which is Mo-mi said backward. Then, Episode 7 is titled Mi-mo and Mo-mi.
This immediately made me wonder about the relationship between Mo-mi and Mi-mo. Also, I wondered who the other characters were and why they got their own episodes. Add to that the clue that Mi-mo means “beauty” or “good looks” or “good appearance,” in Korean, and clearly there was a message that the creators of this show were trying to send through the names of the characters.
Also, if you have a chance, I suggest you take a look at the transcript of this episode for the Korean spelling of “Mask Girl”’s episode titles. And/or you can watch the series on Netflix, because each episode has the title written in huge letters, and the spelling of the names themselves are very symmetric.
The way the Korean alphabet is used, it’s not used like English, where the letters go side by side and move in one direction. In Korean, there is a box and the vowels and consonants have three main places where they can fit into. They’re like puzzle pieces. So, when you write a sound like “Mo” from the name “Mo-mi,” in English, the M comes and then the o comes. But in Korean, the M alphabet comes, and then the sound that makes o goes underneath the M.
It’s somewhat difficult to describe in audio, but for today’s episode of Sponge, the symmetry is particularly relevant.
Mo-mi is the main character—the one who is insecure about her looks. And Mi-mo is her daughter. They have flipped names of each other. Mo-mi. Mi-mo. And Mi-mo, the daughter’s name, means good looks, good appearance, beauty. Neither are common names in Korean. The creators intended this symmetry. And throughout the show, there is symmetry everywhere.
Symmetry and beauty. This relationship, on its own, has been the study of many scholars, the obsession of many celebrities, and a matter of mild interest for the general public for quite some time. I would say that many people are aware that symmetry, especially in the face of a human being, is supposed to add to the level of attractiveness of that person.
I do think it’s the case to a certain extent. But oddly, I’ve seen some people with close to perfect symmetry, and I found it eerie. There is one female actor, who shall remain unnamed. When she first made her debut, I was genuinely spooked. She looked a bit unreal because her face was sooooo symmetric. Robotic, almost. But then a decade passed, and personally, I think she looks way more beautiful now. The years added natural unsymmetry to her face, and I find that beautiful.
So, see, I don’t know if one could say the more symmetry, the more beauty. And I don’t think I’m entirely odd in that I find too much symmetry spooky. The horror genre has explored symmetry endlessly, at this point.
For example, the Rorschach test comes to mind. From Wikipedia, quote, ”The Rorschach test is a projective psychological test in which subjects’ perceptions of inkblots are recorded and then analyzed using psychological interpretation, complex algorithms, or both. … Each of the blots has near perfect bilateral symmetry. Five inkblots are of black ink, two are of black and red ink and three are multicolored, on a white background.” End quote.
There is something creepy about symmetry. Just looking at these blobs makes me feel weird. They remind me of white walls in an insane asylum. You put supposedly insane people in a place with all-white walls, and you wonder why they’re still insane? Or why a person who might not have been insane at all would go insane in a place with all-white walls? It’s like that. Some things that are pushed at people who are supposedly ill, in the name of making them better, are themselves really darn creepy, and the Rorschach test is one of them. I guess that’s why in so many horror stories, it shows up. The test shows up, and that in and of itself creates this ominous atmosphere.
And then there are twins. Twins as an eeriness factor has also been used abundantly in the broader horror genre, such as in “The Shining.” At least in the movie version, there are twins.
There are also twins in American Horror Story. There are the conjoined twins from the Freak Show season. And there are also the red-headed twins from the Murder House season. There might have been other twins in the series as well.
And then there are subtler symmetries like in the movie “Hereditary.” It begins with an opening sequence where everything looks like a miniature doll house. The camera moves in, in, in, into that world until the doll house fills up the whole screen and the life-sized actors move within what we thought was the doll house.
And the movie ends with a scene where the camera is on the extreme close-up of an actor’s face, then suddenly cuts to a wider shot where the entirety of a treehouse looks like a doll’s house.
And I liked the movie, “Hereditary,” and I remember vividly that I was so extremely pleased and happy with the final scene, specifically for its symmetry with the first scenes. I just… I felt so well taken care of.
And I mention all these examples, because… symmetry and horror—symmetry and horrible things, in general—provide an odd kind of comfort. Even the Rorschach test. The thing looks darn unnatural and spooky, but often, in horror movies, inexplicable things happen. Then suddenly, boom, in the comforting quiet of a psychologist’s office, there are these tests that can supposedly explain the supernatural behavior of ghost-possessed characters. It’s comforting. All these symmetries, while they are spooky, also add meaning. A pattern.
“Mask Girl” isn’t exactly horror. It might have been categorized as horror once upon a time. But nowadays, it’s more like a thriller. A very gory thriller. There are multiple murders, and not only straightforward murders, but the dismemberment of bodies.
And from here on, this episode of Sponge will be full of spoilers.
There is so much symmetry in the plot of “Mask Girl.” And lookism and its harms actually weren’t the main theme. They seem like they’re central, but they only open the story. If one were to watch “Mask Girl” through the lens of lookism alone, half of the story would seem superfluous. But instead, when you watch it through the lens of symmetry, it becomes a fascinating study of the odd comfort of predictable crimes.
Here is an example of a symmetry that isn’t too gruesome. There is the friendship between Mo-mi and a coworker. The two dance together and have a whole routine in which they mirror each other.
And then later on, there is the later friendship that Mi-mo, the daughter of Mo-mi has with Mi-mo’s friend. Both Mo-mi and Mi-mo are so alone, they always only have one friend, and barely that. So they and their friend mirror each other, and Mo-mi’s friendship mirrors Mi-mo’s friendship. It’s a symmetry of a symmetry.
And I don’t think talking about these symmetries takes away the fun of the story, because, really, the fun came from the symmetry. The fun came from the predictability of the story that was nevertheless not boring. It was predictable but soothing in a gruesome way.
So, Mo-mi thinks she is unattractive. This young girl, who enjoyed being on stage, who loved to dance and get the applause of the audience, grows up to be a woman who perceives herself as unattractive. Also, those around her perceive her as unattractive. But only her face. She is tall and has a hot, extremely hot body. So she puts on a mask and dances on internet streams. She uses the pseudonym “Mask Girl.” That’s how she earns money on the side, besides working full-time as an office drone in a boring office setting.
Mo-mi has a crush on her boss. This boss, she thinks, is hot. But he is married, so she just enjoys looking at him at work. But then it turns out, he was a self-absorbed man who knows very well that he is attractive. Not only that, he alters his photographs to make himself look hotter. So, here is an immediate symmetry between him and Mo-mi. She is this unattractive woman who knows she is unattractive, and he is an attractive man who knows he is attractive. They aren’t mirror reflections of each other, but theme-wise, they form a pair.
Soon, it is revealed that this guy is cheating on his wife with a pretty office worker. Meanwhile, an unattractive guy at the office realizes that Mo-mi is Mask Girl. He has a crush on her.
Hereby we have another symmetry. The hot guy with the hot girl. The unattractive girl, not exactly with the unattractive guy, but lumped together, story wise.
Mo-mi is appalled that this married supposedly hot guy is having sex with the hot woman in the office. Mo-mi sort of kind of discretely spreads the news about the relationship between those two. This truth about the hot guy and hot woman spread like wildfire within the company. And when an anonymous blackmailer sends Mo-mi a photograph of her as Mask Girl, she is terrified. She is terrified because she knows what the truth can do in this company setting. So, always, one thing happens—the spreading of the news happens—and then later on, another spreading of the news happens. So, there is yet another symmetry.
Then, later on, that blackmailer turns out to be the unattractive guy from the office. How does Mo-mi find out?
Mo-mi was almost raped by another man. In the struggle, she pushed him and he hit his head on the furniture. She thought he died. The unattractive guy, because he is a creep blackmailer, already knew that the would-be rapist was gonna rape Mo-mi, and so the unattractive guy had been calling Mo-mi. So Mo-mi contacted him after she thinks she killed the would-be rapist.
The unattractive guy offers to get rid of the body for Mo-mi. But it turns out, the would-be rapist wasn’t dead. And the unattractive guy kills the would-be rapist and pretends that he didn’t. Pretends that he got rid of the body for Mo-mi.
Then what does the unattractive guy proceed to do? He rapes Mo-mi. He doesn’t almost rape. He actually rapes. Still, symmetry after symmetry. The same pattern happens over and over again. But within the story, it does not feel repetitive. Rather, it feels like things make sense. That provides an uncomfortable sense of comfort. These crimes on their own are not comfortable. And yet, because of the lack of randomness, it is strangely comforting. This isn’t a granny peacefully walking home from her trip to the public bathhouse and getting stabbed by a random guy. “Mask Girl” is all about people having specific reasons to repeat the same pattern over and over again.
The symmetry of these patterns reaches a point where it seems to become hereditary. Mo-mi gets pregnant with Mi-mo. Through the rape.
But fortunately for the viewer, she already thinks she killed the would-be rapist, so when someone actually rapes her, what does she do? She kills her rapist mid-rape.
At that point, already, Mo-mi got herself full cosmetic surgery on her face. She has transformed into someone entirely different. Her old self is completely gone. That is how she meets her friend who does the dance routines with her. For a short while, they are like twins, on the stage.
And on and on and on. Symmetry after symmetry.
The most dramatic of all symmetries comes from the mother of the rapist getting full plastic surgery, just like Mo-mi did. So, see, even with all this plot symmetry, the visual elements of the series aren’t repetitive at all. That is why the character names are so critical. There are multiple actors playing the role of Mo-mi, from her early childhood to her middle-aged years. And there are two actors for the rapist’s mother.
There are very few random things in this series, and yet, things don’t get boring. The plot is predictable but at the same time, unpredictable. Because, we don’t know which of the elements up to now will be reincarnated through other characters and/or different circumstances.
And there is a strange realism here. These character names. Them functioning as tags is about the only indicators of continuity, because we cannot rely on the sameness of an actor’s face. This is fascinating.
Basically, the names serve as memory loaders for the viewers. We see a name like Mo-mi and we remember what she did in the previous episodes. But she doesn’t look anything like the Mo-mi from earlier. And these characters, to themselves, they are basically their past. They are their memories. And so, the strange realism comes from how, when you are your memories, of course things will repeat themselves over and over again.
The final symmetry gets completed through the very last line. In this last scene, Mi-mo, who is Mo-mi’s daughter, is watching an old recording of Mo-mi. It looks like one of those talent shows that we, the viewers, saw in the very first episode. It’s from the time when Mo-mi was still too young to be considered unattractive. The girl was maybe six or seven years old, and she loves dancing, she gets applause from people, and life is great.
When a grown-up asks Young Mo-mi what she would like to become in the future, Mo-mi says that she wants to be a person who is loved by everyone. This is what Mo-mi wanted at the beginning of the show. This is what the show leaves the viewers with.
And in the middle of the series, right when it is publicized that Mo-mi killed the men, and she is arrested, the show makes the symmetry between her childhood dream and her criminal state very clear. She gets all the camera flashes that she ever wanted. People are interested in what she orders for lunch from the police station. And because of her hot body, what she wears becomes popular. She wanted popularity, but what she attracted instead was notoriety. In English, popularity and notoriety have a greater difference in meaning, than in Korean. Actually, in Korean, you could use the word popularity for both popularity and notoriety. That’s something to take into account, while one thinks about what the creators tried to get across, especially in a series full of so many symmetries.
And because this series balances predictability with unpredictability so well, Mi-mo, the child of Mask Girl, says at the end that she doesn’t have hatred for people anymore. See, she was bullied so much for being the daughter of Mask Girl, but after everything that happens near the end of the series, she says she doesn’t have hatred for people anymore.
This is an amazing feat, if she actually means it. I half don’t believe her, because so much of this series is about hereditary abuse. But also, I half do believe her, because, if a person is gonna break the chains of human-made karma, that most simplistic view of what is good versus evil, then it’s after an extremely traumatic event. What happens at the end involves a prison break, gunshots, a whole bunch of police people, and other, even more traumatic elements. So, maybe, after all that, indeed, Mi-mo was able to let go of everything. Maybe she really does not hate people anymore, because the symmetries of the crimes and abuses that occur in this story are so predictable that perhaps she saw the pointlessness of clinging to them. And again, I don’t mean, predictable in a boring way, but predictable, like, in life. It’s scary to observe how in some cases, a person can be terrified of the future, and yet live the exact same kind of life that their father or mother led. The environment might have changed. Maybe that person moved to a different country and speaks five languages, but the core of the emotions that a person feels can still be the exact same as their parents’. It’s scary. It’s predictable but not boring. It’s true horror.
But Mi-mo is saying, she won’t live in that horror. She is not gonna get full plastic surgery on her face and despite that, fail to lead a new life. Rather, she will keep her original face and live a new life. Her conclusion forms a theme symmetry to the rest of the series. Hers is one side of the coin, which is the truth that we are who we say we are. Mo-mi lived according to what the world told her to believe in. Mi-mo is saying, she will not do that. But both of them are doing the same thing in that they are both choosing who they are.
Hannah found the randomness in a crime so disturbing. “If only there had been some kind of explanation,” Hannah wondered. “Any explanation,” she wondered, regarding the granny murder.
Well, if Hannah were to watch “Mask Girl,” she won’t have to wonder about the same things. With its ending, “Mask Girl” ties everything beautifully together. Everything has meaning. Nothing happened randomly. And that is one of the beauties of fictional storytelling. It can show us, clearly, the other side of the coin that we already have.
- Adi Goldstein – Cascade Symmetry
Everything I do is organized here:
© 2023 Ithaka O.