“Mirror,” a short film written and directed by Christina Yoon, was screened at this year’s New York Shorts International Film Festival, DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival and Woods Hole Film Festival and will be screening at the Oscar qualifying Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in September.
Mirror follows a young woman named Yeona Song (Spring Kim) and is set in Flushing, Queens. Yeona is a seamstress who is saving up money to go to a black market plastic surgeon. Yeona has a vicious scar on the right side of her face.
In one of the most poignant scenes, the surgeon’s assistant, Mrs. Cho (MeeWha Alana Lee) convinces Yeona to undergo an entire facial reconstruction.
“What kind of face are you looking for?… Perhaps the gorgeous face of a K-pop idol, or maybe the face of a sweet girl-next-door? Those are very popular these days.” Yeona protests slightly by saying, “If I could just get the scar removed…” Mrs. Cho cuts her off: “If we cut off the whole right side of your face, and nip and tuck here and there, you could become an absolute beauty!” Then, the bullet: “Why choose mediocrity?”
The short film is compelling in its deconstruction of Korean beauty standards, which are notorious for their stringent notions of aesthetic perfection and normalized culture of plastic surgery. Christina Yoon, who is a Korean American filmmaker, worked in South Korea after graduating from NYU and saw firsthand how this societal pressure can deeply impact someone.
Yoon conversed with us about society’s obsession with physical beauty, the hollowness of remedying internal pain with external fixes and the importance of Asian representation and the need to go beyond stereotypical portrayals and narratives in film and television.
I’m wondering if you could speak to the culture of aesthetic perfection, beauty standards and plastic surgery in both Western culture and Korean culture and how these factors formed the basis of the film.
The pressure to conform to beauty ideals is strong in both Western and Eastern cultures.
Starting from a young age, there is a pressure to look a certain way; the media perpetuates this through perfect, airbrushed images.
The preteen and teen years have a big influence on our standards of beauty. Depending on how toxic the images are to somebody, it can take a very long time to separate yourself from that influence and see yourself as valid and worthy, and to feel comfortable in your own skin. And in Eastern cultures, specifically, in Korea, it’s different because the society has almost supported the pressure, has accepted and embraced it in a way that I think is quite damaging.
I moved to Korea for two years after college. I am Korean American, but I hadn’t lived there so I experienced culture shock. Your appearance matters so much–for both men and women–you’re not allowed to submit a job application or resume without a headshot.
The pressure to get plastic surgery is so prevalent at such a young age that girls who are 12, 13 years old are getting simple surgeries done to just get ahead in life and do better in their careers. The fact that it is so normalized in Koren culture is something that should be questioned, and so that was sort of what was driving the messages in Mirror, was just the questioning of how accepting we are of those pressures.
In Mirror, when Yeona goes into the plastic surgeon’s office, she says, “When I look at myself, I don’t see a person. I see a monster,” and Joonsuk (Taeho Kwak) who works at the office responds, “If you think that, then there is nothing this place can do for you.”
I think that most people feel that way at some point, particularly women and those with dysphoria. I’m interested in the fact that you chose a young woman with a scarred face as the protagonist. Why did you make this choice and do you think we need more of these narratives?
Many women including myself have experienced severe body image issues or self-esteem issues attached to how you look at some point in their lives, and it can be as drastic as feeling like you’re grotesque, that you look like a monster and a lot of the time that isn’t coming from a rational place, but it’s just so deeply rooted in us.
Choosing a woman with a scarred face was to externalize that inner pain, the feeling that many women have when they look at themselves that their lowest point, but externalizing that, and making it really tangible and physical, [exploring] how difficult it would be for a character to go through that with a scar on their face.
So I do think that it’s important to have characters of all types. We shouldn’t just be casting beautiful, attractive people in all of our roles. It’s not reflective of the real world to only have gorgeous people on-screen.
In the film, Joonsuk talks about how people come into the surgeon’s office [seeking] this idealized notion of beauty, but all he sees is ugliness. I’m wondering if the film is suggesting that there is an ugliness to the way in which we as a society idolize beauty and strive towards it?
Absolutely. The curated beauty we see on screen is artificially done with surgery or makeup. I appreciate everyone’s right to express themselves through their appearance. However, the intense focus on physical beauty—-none of it real, with highly photoshopped, altered images—is quite ugly because it is not finding beauty in the natural self and that puts a lot of psychological pressure on young girls.
In Mirror, Yeona ultimately doesn’t go through with the surgery at the end, and that’s not to say that she’s smiling at the end and completely accepting herself, because it’s a lot more complicated than that. It’s also not saying that she will never undergo surgery done to remove her scar.
But it’s questioning, how much of your dislike of your appearance is psychological? There is a difference between not accepting yourself, no matter how you look because of where you are mentally and being in a secure place emotionally and making the choice to undergo plastic surgery. When are we encouraging people who aren’t in the best place mentally to just put over a band-aid over those problems by only fixing the external rather than the internal?
Yeona has very few dialogues in the film. How is her silence operating as a means of self-erasure in the film?
The character is trying to be invisible. She doesn’t want to be seen, she wants to hide from the world, and the silence is part of that. She is completely withdrawn into her inner pain, and she has these walls up around her.
So much of this struggle is internal for people. You don’t really know when people are going through depression or having self-image issues, especially if they’re good at hiding it. I wanted to show how dark and isolating that journey can be so that’s why I made the choice for Yeona [to be more silent].
It’s interesting, Spring Kim is the complete opposite of Yeona’s character. She is so outgoing and extroverted, such a bright person. But when she came into the room to audition, she was able to switch that off and embody that withdrawal: shrivel up, avert her eyes and use her hair to cover her face. She just tapped into any seeds of self-doubt or self-hatred that she might have had any points in her life to help become this character.
To what extent is the male gaze operational in this film?
The male gaze is prevalent in the lives of many women. I actually focused more on the female gaze in this film. The male gaze is obvious, but I don’t think we often recognize how impactful the female gaze is in putting pressure on other women, making other women feel bad, critiquing them. It was especially something that I experienced in Korean society, women, and especially older women, and mother/aunt figures around middle age critiquing: “You need to be thinner, and you need to paler, and why don’t you do this and that.” It’s so strong in Asian culture, so that’s why I chose to make a lot of hospital workers female.
Did you face any challenges while working on this film?
My producer was invaluable to the process. I’m Korean American, and my Korean is conversational, but he is fluent in Korean and helped translate my script, which I wrote in English, and really bring the nuance to the wording in Korean
What would you like to see in terms of BIPOC representation on-screen?
I’m specifically very focused on Asian representation, there’s just so little of it and we see the same actors playing all of these roles because there aren’t enough [well known] Asian American actors, so you see Chinese people play Korean people, and Korean people play Chinese people.
I want there to be more, I want it to be encouraged, and I personally plan to do my best effort with my career to make it a priority to tell Asian and Asian American stories. I also think it’s important to go beyond the immigrant narrative, which is important, but there is so much more to explore.
We’re starting to see some great stuff by Jordan Peele, who is making genre films but with BIPOC. I wanted to do the same with Asian American culture and actors.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am writing and am in pre-production for another short film that I’m actually going to shoot in Korea. And it is about a Korean adoptee who goes to meet her birth mother for the first time. It is exploring a lot of similar things that I’m interested in, about identity and about figuring out who you are and if you can accept who you are. Specifically, in this film, it’s about the character latching onto this ideal of a mother. So that’s something I’m excited about, and we are planning to shoot next year! Otherwise, I’m writing feature scripts that I hope will get made, that are along the same lines of being BIPOC genre feature films.