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[INTERVIEW] Filmmaker explores pressure of Korea's rigid beauty standards

A scene from the film
A scene from the film "Mirror" / Courtesy of Christina Yoon

By Kwak Yeon-soo

Director Christina Yoon's short film "Mirror" explores Korea's "unrealistic" beauty standards which make women desperate to achieve aesthetic perfection. Although the movie is about Korean women, Yoon said the topic she deals with is a universal problem that anyone can empathize with.

The 12-minute film tells the story of Yeona Song (played by Spring Kim), a female Korean immigrant who is self-conscious because of a large scar on her right cheek.

She wears a face mask to hide the scar. At the height of insecurity, she decides to visit an unlicensed beauty clinic in Queens, New York, to remove the scar. However, she is encouraged to consider changing her entire face, and she faces the dilemma to either undergo plastic surgery or to accept the skin she's in.

Yoon explained that she has always been fascinated by the masks people put on for society, creating a dichotomy between one's inner self and outer appearance.

"As a Korean American woman, I felt this on many levels as a teenager ― feeling outside of both Korean and American beauty standards and feeling 'other,'" she said in a recent email interview with The Korea Times.

"I wanted to show the painful struggle of dealing with self-hatred and not feeling comfortable in your own skin. It often doesn't matter how attractive you are or how others perceive you ― it's a journey to learn to accept the person looking back at you in the mirror."

For the first time, she wrote and directed the film fully in Korean as she hopes to make feature films in Korea in the future.

"I have such emotional, complex feelings towards my motherland and have much to express as someone who exists as part of the Korean diaspora," Yoon said.

"In America, I look Korean and therefore am seen as Korean. In Korea, as someone who isn't fluent in the language and culture, I'm American. This dichotomy brings me to reflect on what I've lost ― language, culture and history ― as well as what I've gained: an identity of individualism and diversity that truly empowers me."

Filmmaker Christina Yoon / Courtesy of Christina Yoon
Filmmaker Christina Yoon / Courtesy of Christina Yoon
Below is an excerpt of The Korea Times interview with Yoon on her new film "Mirror." It has been edited for clarity and readability.

Q. The film opens with footage of perfect-looking Korean idols. Especially given the film is set in the U.S., is there a particular reason you referred to Korean media, not American media, on addressing beauty standards?
A. I lived in Seoul for two years after graduating from college, and the immense pressure of Korean beauty standards affected me every day in a way I had never felt before. In Korea, I felt a direct tie between beauty and worth in a very overt way. Speaking from my own experience ― there was a clear difference in how I was treated in everyday life and in the workplace when I was dressed up and wearing makeup to look as attractive as possible, even when my looks had no bearing on the situation. Certainly, this issue also exists in America, but not in the same deeply societal way as it is in Korea. I felt it was important to question this and explore what I experienced.

Q. How did you first come across black market plastic surgery?
A. I found out about black market plastic surgery through various American news outlets. It's prevalent, perhaps because of how expensive medical procedures are in the U.S. and how difficult it is to get insurance coverage for cosmetic surgeries. People of all ethnicities and genders will turn to the black market for cheaper options to get the bodies they desire. While it might not specifically be common in the Korean community, I wanted to bring that same darkness and desperation to Yeona's journey.

Q. How did you find the actors for their roles?
A. We cast using online casting websites. It seemed daunting at first because we had to cast from a very small pool ― specifically New York-based Korean actors who were fluent in Korean. But we found incredible actors for our lead roles. Spring Kim is a Korean American actress out of NYU Tisch. She came in to audition, and from the start I was impressed with her ability to physically embody the character. The male assistant is played by Taeho Kwak, an amazing Korean actor who was luckily based in New York at the time taking English classes and getting acting training. The female assistant, played by MeeWha Alana Lee, brings a level of comedic absurdity to the role while still being rooted in her character.

Q. As a Korean immigrant growing up with two cultures, what does Asian representation mean to you?
A. Images hold power and affect us deeply and subconsciously. I grew up seeing almost no one in American media who looked like me, and as a child I could not help but feel outside the typical standard of beauty. This affected my frame of mind as a child without me even knowing it. I began to feel my dreams were unrealistic because I could only see Asians in stereotypical roles, and I felt it was impossible for me to become a director as an Asian American woman. I know now that these societal and industry norms need to be actively fought against. Thankfully, this is changing.


Q. With "Parasite," I heard that a growing number of people in the U.S. are embracing Korean-language films and films with subtitles. "Minari," a film about Korean immigrants, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival this year. Do you think they're going to bring more attention to Korean films, and Korean and Korean American filmmakers?
A. Yes, there's a new awareness of Korean films and filmmakers, but I don't think it will suddenly become easy for Korean American filmmakers. "Parasite" and "Minari" both have an appeal of the universal within the specific, and I think that's going to be key to getting our films made. The good news is that American studios and film companies are seeing that viewers are hungry for unique, diverse perspectives. What matters now is not putting ourselves in a box, but being as bold as possible.

Q. What are you hoping viewers will take away from "Mirror"?
A. I hope audiences can find deeper understanding through Yeona's journey and all the darkness, yearning and growth that comes with it. While the film aims to question the norms of feminine and Asian beauty standards, it's not necessarily anti-plastic surgery ― I believe every woman has a right to do what she wants to her own body. Instead, it asks audiences to value the importance of mental and emotional health, healing and self-love, before seeking surgery as a solution to something that's actually internal. One day, Yeona may very well get surgery to remove her scar if it's what she wants, but it will be on her own terms after she's found more peace within.

A scene from the film
A scene from the film "Mirror" / Courtesy of Christina Yoon

Yoon said she will continue to make dramatic and thriller films exploring themes of trauma, identity, morality and alienation among others. Her next project will be a short film telling the story of a Korean adoptee from America who searches for her birth mother in Korea.

Yoon received her undergraduate degree from New York University Tisch School of the Arts, and is currently a graduate film student at Columbia University.

"Mirror" is screening online for the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival through Oct. 31.


A scene from the film
A scene from the film "Mirror" / Courtesy of Christina Yoon

By Kwak Yeon-soo

Director Christina Yoon's short film "Mirror" explores Korea's "unrealistic" beauty standards which make women desperate to achieve aesthetic perfection. Although the movie is about Korean women, Yoon said the topic she deals with is a universal problem that anyone can empathize with.

The 12-minute film tells the story of Yeona Song (played by Spring Kim), a female Korean immigrant who is self-conscious because of a large scar on her right cheek.

She wears a face mask to hide the scar. At the height of insecurity, she decides to visit an unlicensed beauty clinic in Queens, New York, to remove the scar. However, she is encouraged to consider changing her entire face, and she faces the dilemma to either undergo plastic surgery or to accept the skin she's in.

Yoon explained that she has always been fascinated by the masks people put on for society, creating a dichotomy between one's inner self and outer appearance.

"As a Korean American woman, I felt this on many levels as a teenager ― feeling outside of both Korean and American beauty standards and feeling 'other,'" she said in a recent email interview with The Korea Times.

"I wanted to show the painful struggle of dealing with self-hatred and not feeling comfortable in your own skin. It often doesn't matter how attractive you are or how others perceive you ― it's a journey to learn to accept the person looking back at you in the mirror."

For the first time, she wrote and directed the film fully in Korean as she hopes to make feature films in Korea in the future.

"I have such emotional, complex feelings towards my motherland and have much to express as someone who exists as part of the Korean diaspora," Yoon said.

"In America, I look Korean and therefore am seen as Korean. In Korea, as someone who isn't fluent in the language and culture, I'm American. This dichotomy brings me to reflect on what I've lost ― language, culture and history ― as well as what I've gained: an identity of individualism and diversity that truly empowers me."

Filmmaker Christina Yoon / Courtesy of Christina Yoon
Filmmaker Christina Yoon / Courtesy of Christina Yoon
Below is an excerpt of The Korea Times interview with Yoon on her new film "Mirror." It has been edited for clarity and readability.

Q. The film opens with footage of perfect-looking Korean idols. Especially given the film is set in the U.S., is there a particular reason you referred to Korean media, not American media, on addressing beauty standards?
A. I lived in Seoul for two years after graduating from college, and the immense pressure of Korean beauty standards affected me every day in a way I had never felt before. In Korea, I felt a direct tie between beauty and worth in a very overt way. Speaking from my own experience ― there was a clear difference in how I was treated in everyday life and in the workplace when I was dressed up and wearing makeup to look as attractive as possible, even when my looks had no bearing on the situation. Certainly, this issue also exists in America, but not in the same deeply societal way as it is in Korea. I felt it was important to question this and explore what I experienced.

Q. How did you first come across black market plastic surgery?
A. I found out about black market plastic surgery through various American news outlets. It's prevalent, perhaps because of how expensive medical procedures are in the U.S. and how difficult it is to get insurance coverage for cosmetic surgeries. People of all ethnicities and genders will turn to the black market for cheaper options to get the bodies they desire. While it might not specifically be common in the Korean community, I wanted to bring that same darkness and desperation to Yeona's journey.

Q. How did you find the actors for their roles?
A. We cast using online casting websites. It seemed daunting at first because we had to cast from a very small pool ― specifically New York-based Korean actors who were fluent in Korean. But we found incredible actors for our lead roles. Spring Kim is a Korean American actress out of NYU Tisch. She came in to audition, and from the start I was impressed with her ability to physically embody the character. The male assistant is played by Taeho Kwak, an amazing Korean actor who was luckily based in New York at the time taking English classes and getting acting training. The female assistant, played by MeeWha Alana Lee, brings a level of comedic absurdity to the role while still being rooted in her character.

Q. As a Korean immigrant growing up with two cultures, what does Asian representation mean to you?
A. Images hold power and affect us deeply and subconsciously. I grew up seeing almost no one in American media who looked like me, and as a child I could not help but feel outside the typical standard of beauty. This affected my frame of mind as a child without me even knowing it. I began to feel my dreams were unrealistic because I could only see Asians in stereotypical roles, and I felt it was impossible for me to become a director as an Asian American woman. I know now that these societal and industry norms need to be actively fought against. Thankfully, this is changing.


Q. With "Parasite," I heard that a growing number of people in the U.S. are embracing Korean-language films and films with subtitles. "Minari," a film about Korean immigrants, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival this year. Do you think they're going to bring more attention to Korean films, and Korean and Korean American filmmakers?
A. Yes, there's a new awareness of Korean films and filmmakers, but I don't think it will suddenly become easy for Korean American filmmakers. "Parasite" and "Minari" both have an appeal of the universal within the specific, and I think that's going to be key to getting our films made. The good news is that American studios and film companies are seeing that viewers are hungry for unique, diverse perspectives. What matters now is not putting ourselves in a box, but being as bold as possible.

Q. What are you hoping viewers will take away from "Mirror"?
A. I hope audiences can find deeper understanding through Yeona's journey and all the darkness, yearning and growth that comes with it. While the film aims to question the norms of feminine and Asian beauty standards, it's not necessarily anti-plastic surgery ― I believe every woman has a right to do what she wants to her own body. Instead, it asks audiences to value the importance of mental and emotional health, healing and self-love, before seeking surgery as a solution to something that's actually internal. One day, Yeona may very well get surgery to remove her scar if it's what she wants, but it will be on her own terms after she's found more peace within.

A scene from the film
A scene from the film "Mirror" / Courtesy of Christina Yoon

Yoon said she will continue to make dramatic and thriller films exploring themes of trauma, identity, morality and alienation among others. Her next project will be a short film telling the story of a Korean adoptee from America who searches for her birth mother in Korea.

Yoon received her undergraduate degree from New York University Tisch School of the Arts, and is currently a graduate film student at Columbia University.

"Mirror" is screening online for the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival through Oct. 31.


Kwak Yeon-soo yeons.kwak@koreatimes.co.kr

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