Becoming the Mask


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Eun-ha is the dead fiancée of a rich heir, while Ji-sook is a doppelganger forced by his rival to assume her identity and proceed with the marriage of convenience.

Eun-ha (in writing) and Ji-sook (in person): One who dons a mask will ultimately be unhappy.

Ji-sook (continuing): One cannot be happy living with someone she does not love while pretending to love him from behind a mask. Hence, I will live my life loving him—for real.


Walt Disney director and writer Jennifer Lee, whose credits include award-winning animated features Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph, said that the first thing students learn in film school is character. The worst characters are thought to be perfect characters, who feel inauthentic. Characters second only to them are those full of self-doubt. The central character of Mask, unfortunately, was one or the other most of the time. She started off as a clumsy doormat wearing her heart on her sleeve while everyone else was donning masks, even though she was supposed to be the one hiding her identity. In the second half of the series, she veered to the opposite end, playing a confident and impeccable Santa Claus to all except her nemeses. For a brief, golden period in-between, though, Ji-sook was a woman who roused roaring support from the audience as she finally studied the mindset of her tough doppelganger and stood up to her tormentors, having come to the realization that she could defend those she loved only by becoming stronger, or in other words, becoming her mask.

The problem is, the audience is ultimately using television and the like to mask away mundane and unpleasant realities. Film theorist Todd McGowan enumerated the various lies screen narratives propagate: the idea of history as progress, the ease of instant reversals of fortunes in capitalist societies, hedonistic lifestyles with no dire consequences, the perception of every acquaintance as a commodity, etc. Nonetheless, he debunked the myth of a strict dichotomy between truth and fiction.

Mask encased in Byun Ji-sook's USB device in 2015 Korean drama Mask

In McGowan’s view, there is no reality beyond the screen. Truths, he thought, exist within fictional structures. They are not separate entities that can be taken at face value, the way minted coins are. Furthermore, the way people look at reality and the very desire to look can distort the reality seen. Some “real-life” scenarios, albeit not provided or endorsed by him, would perhaps be how neurological dispositions and the framing of questions may change perceptions of facts. Navigating and interpreting the external world without awareness of such fallacies would likely hamper the ability to understand and improve life.

Things are the same the other way round: fictions, as we know them, contain truths. Cinematic creations, McGowan argued, unveil the hidden hopes, anxieties and beliefs of a society. What he did not mention is that screen fantasies can also serve as visual thought experiments, illuminating logic potentially applicable to life outside the theater or television. Even if filmmakers and television producers do not always conduct themselves with utmost probity, McGowan believed that truths manifest in the ways lies are communicated. Thus, one would argue in his stead, if a contemplative, morally nonconformist drama is capped off hastily with a conventional, politically correct ending, without substantial reasoning, there are grounds to speculate that its creators fancy a different conclusion in private.

Byun Ji-sook's imagination of Seo Eun-ha (Soo Ae) in 2015 Korean drama Mask

The most fascinating twists, however, are the metamorphoses of fictions into truths. Contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton has hope that fictional tragedies and comedies will bring forth a more equal society, the former by provoking sympathy for the downfallen and the latter by mocking the grandiose. Meanwhile, hope has already come to fruition for Polish drama Decalogue V, which film adaptation led to the abolition of capital punishment in the jurisdiction. The barometer of national and individual success, it can be said, is the degree to which life spent inside the best of fictional worlds feels less fulfilling than life outside. Simultaneously, though, a measure of initiative and tenacity would be whether, when confronted with a disparity in this area, a country or person first attempts to turn imagination into reality or first escapes into yet another fictional world.

Still, precisely because fiction can form the blueprint for action, there is value in dreaming with audacity. Fantasies ought to embrace the absurd, so long as there is reason to question its so-called moral falsehood. Provided that care is taken to mark the ethical ambiguity of the position, conventional doctrines should not stop fiction creators from airing such doubts so that the merits of the case may be debated in the open. Unfortunately, as another film theorist, Slavoj Žižek, observed, sometimes people return to “reality” to use it as a mask for disturbing truths they encounter in fictions. In the fiction that this non-cinematic world constitutes, that would probably make for the most uninspiring roles ever: characters who are perfect in what they do because they do not dream bigger, and characters who are not even confident enough to dream.

Byun Ji-sook (Soo Ae) staring at Seo Eun-ha's photo in the latter's apartment in 2015 Korean drama Mask

Truth in Fiction                    The Drama

Fiction in Truth                    Drama Resources

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