As founders of a small film production company, Jason and Eddie were used to filming everything and anything, especially when they traveled. When the two brothers visited Korea to see their family last winter, they did what they knew best to experience their motherland more intimately.
With a camera in their hands they roamed the streets of Seoul, taking in all the fun and glamor that the city had to offer. However, what they didn’t know was, behind the shiny and glittery signs, Korea was hiding a secret that wasn’t so hidden.
“Why are you filming? No, you cannot film here. You cannot film the girls,” an old lady jumped out of her seat to stop the brothers on the street. The brothers had entered 88th street in Miari, one of the oldest and biggest red-light districts in Korea.
“This place used to have more than 1,000 girls, but because of the government crackdown, now there are only 500 of them,” said one of the pimps from Miari during an interview. Since the passage of the anti-sex trafficking law in 2004, prostitution has been declared illegal in Korea, and the law enforcement on red-light districts has led to some outward progress. However, despite the crackdowns, prostitution is now more rampant than ever, with underground prostitution flourishing in ways that are almost impossible to track.
In one of the thousands of karaoke bars in the streets of Seoul, Crystal* and Esther* poured drinks and entertained men night after night. It mattered little where they were from and who they were. All that the men saw were the smiles on their face when they were handed the mic to sing, alcohol to drink and money to open their legs. It mattered little that they were probably as young as their own daughters because it was the girls’ choice to be there.
Everyone has a story—Esther, Crystal, the johns, and the pimps. “Sometimes it makes me happy to imagine myself as an ordinary girl hanging out in an ordinary café. But if you look inside, you’ll see that there’s something different about me.” Esther is a 19-year old with the spirit of a wise and mischievous old man. She is silly and warm, but her defining mark of character is her incredible honesty and sincerity. Crystal is just a year younger, and her youthful spirit and energy make everyone fall in love with her. “We met at the karaoke bar,” Esther said. “She’s like family to me.”
Walking side by side, picking out earrings for each other, Esther and Crystal look like any other teen girls at the mall. In a way, they are like any other girls at the mall. But with a closer look into their lives, one will notice the scars from their various walks in life—abuse from family, homelessness, and life as prostitutes.
We follow these two girls’ stories, which at first confuse, anger, but ultimately break our hearts. While the girls are left with a sense of lingering regret and pain that haunts them again and again, we can’t help but wonder if there was anything that anyone could’ve done to prevent the girls’ downfall.
It’s devastating to think that the hopeless and poisonous hole that they describe has such a glittery facade that continues to attract lost souls that have nowhere to turn.
Once we realize the horror of the reality, it is hard not to point our fingers at the faceless johns. After all, little guilt and repentance was found at the johns school, an educational rehabilitation program for convicted johns who were caught soliciting sex from minors. As undercover, the filmmakers hoped to catch them in their faults, but instead they ended up realizing that the men were victims of their own broken culture.
“Almost everyone I know has done it at least once. After work, there’s a company dinner and what happens during the 2nd round stays a secret amongst men,” said Chance*, one of the johns Eddie befriends, “and if you don’t partake in it, that’s a bad business move.” From conversations with the johns, the filmmakers realize that men in Korea experience one of the highest levels of stress as the head of the family. The pressure is so high that some resort to ending their own lives for not being able to support their family. It’s a vicious cycle of wanting to rise on top of others while maintaining status quo. And with the amount of stress they go through, Korean men resort to their favorite way of releasing stress—drinking and women.
In their efforts to uncover the truth, the filmmakers seek after the girls, the johns, pimps, and the police. At the end of their journey, we come to see that the issue is far from being black-and-white. In a way, everyone is inter-connected in this messy web of cultural and societal expectations—victimized and broken by the experience—and it all seemed to stem from the mask everyone was wearing. The girls wore a mask inside the karaoke bar, smiling even though they were suffering inside. The girls wore a mask outside the karaoke bars, beautiful with their new noses but broken inside. The men wore a mask at home, faithful and hardworking, and at work, “manly” and “powerful.” And Korea, too, wears a mask—glittery and beautiful with its bubble gum pop culture and sophisticated and innovative with its technology, to hide what’s broken inside.
When we begin to look at what’s under Korea’s mask, it may be overwhelming to see the years of cultural, historical and systematic brokenness manifested in the multi billion-dollar sex industry. Perhaps it is foolish to dream of a mask-less Korea, but the filmmakers choose to have and believe in hope, especially after seeing Esther and Crystal’s transformation into activists who now work as counselors to help other at-risk teens on the street. They believe because the power of one individual to change is more incredible than what most believe.