Ghost Mask: Scar (2018)

Arrow Video FrightFest 2018: Ghost Mask: Scar (2018)

Ghost Mask: Scar opens with a childhood memory, narrated by its protagonist as an adult. A little girl rushes joyously to meet with her divorced dad, but joy turns to agonising grief as she realises that he and his new wife are taking home only her sister Miyu. If this primal scene of abandonment is the ‘scar’ of the title, carved traumatically into the woman’s psyche, then the ‘mask’ is the two-fold effects of time and plastic surgery.  For as the adult Miyu arrives in Seoul – the world capital of cosmetic surgery – from Japan in search of the sister she has not seen in two years, director/cinematographer Takeshi Sone cuts up the first third of his film into a confusing mosaic of real-time events, flashbacks and dream sequences, and leaves it to the viewer to work hard at reconstructing who his different characters are, and how they all relate to each other and their respective pasts.

This is important, because Ghost Mask: Scar has issues of identity at its very heart. If Sone is interweaving different surfaces to hint at an underlying, mysterious depth, then Miyu and her missing sister are also wrestling with feelings of betrayal and guilt and despair that are more than merely skin deep. Miyu’s sister had been a plastic surgeon before she left Japan, and in Seoul, Miyu meets by chance the plastic surgeon Hana, and then Hana’s girlfriend Hyoshin – and as Miyu starts to wonder whether Hana might in fact be her sister with a reconstructed face, Hyoshin misconstrues (not for the first time) her lover’s relationship with Miyu, and responds with a destructive jealousy.  

Ghost Mask: Scar joins the rank of films – like George Franju’s Eyes Without A Face (1960), Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face Of Another (1966), Johh Grissmer’s Scalpel (1976), Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s Suture (1993), Kim Ki-duk’s Time (2006) and Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (2011) – that use reconstructive and cosmetic surgeries as vehicles for the exploration of personal identity and mythic transformation.  For even as one character undergoes a radical metamorphosis that allows her, at least superficially, to transcend her physicality, sexuality and even ethnicity, other aspects of her personality prove more inveterate and entrenched, with ultimately bloody consequences. 

Playing out for the most part as a melodrama, this tale of two sisters takes a sharp turn into the horror genre in its final third, where the masks (and skin) come off to reveal the ghostly outline of a very different story. For the urban myth of Kuchisake-onna, or the ‘Slit Mouth Woman’ has already, like Miyu and her sibling, travelled from its native home in Japan to Korea, and has already found its way into many films, including Sone’s previous cultural crossover, Slit Mouth Woman In LA (2014). This time, though, the slice-happy villainess is a product less of collective anxiety than of personal tragedy, slashing her misguided revenge into a beauty-obsessed S(e)oul.

The drama here is high, coming at a hysterical pitch which all but guarantees that the Audition-like shock of the ending will play comically for some viewers – but part of what makes Ghost Mask: Scar so entertaining is the sheer instability of its plotting and tone, matching the concealed mental makeup of at least one of its characters. Whether it makes you laugh, cry or cringe, Sone’s s(p)lit-identity film will leave its mark.

Strap: Takeshi Sone’s film comes with a s(p)lit identity: part melodrama of family dysfunction, part psychologised urban myth, part bloody slasher.

© Anton Bitel