Visions du Réel review: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall (Grand Angle)

Visions du Réel review: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall (Grand Angle)

China has always had the reputation of being great at copying Western products and trends. So it is not surprising they have managed to take the business of self-improvement to the next level. 


And plastic surgeon/artist Dr Han is the personification of this phenomenon – a fascinating figure in a compelling soap movie about vanity gone wild. 


The opening scenes, closing in on the high rises of a big Chinese city and underscored by cinematic music, promise grandeur and drama. And that’s what you get. 


‘Let’s go to the theatre,’ says Doctor Han, the theatre being the operating room (which actually resembles a theatrical stage). It is crammed with people, each holding a smartphone to film the surgery from all angles, even from the patient’s point of view.


The girl is under local anesthesia, so she is still able to wave to her followers, bearing the pain and discomfort with a professional smile. She’s excited about the breast enhancement but even more about the fact that she can take advantage of Doctor Han’s following. 


Doctor Han plays the starring role in his own life, which he carefully broadcasts through a blog that is followed by hundreds of thousands of people all over the world. He cares for his patients, but they serve his own obsession with perfection and fame, as he admits half way through the film. 


It is a great accomplishment of German director Sascha Schöberl that she has been able to follow her protagonist into all the aspects of his life, both professional and personal. As you would expect of someone who is unable to bear even the slightest of imperfections, Doctor Han suffers from trauma experienced during childhood.


His mother, who also appears in the documentary commenting on the way he manages his beauty clinic, never showed him any appreciation or pride, which he still craves even more than his fame and fortune. He loves the attention on the internet because it makes him feel loved, he concludes simply. A brutally accurate and tragic analysis of his condition.


His revelations are made in voice-over – there are no direct interviews, which facilitates the smooth flow of this very well edited documentary. But it also adds to the drama, just like the comments of his daughter, who doesn’t share her father’s obsession with beauty, but is definitely suffering both from his absence (her parents are divorced) and his constant comments on her looks – her shoulders are too round, her arms too fat, her posture is too weak.


Schöberl is fortunate to be able to witness a kind of turnaround. Doctor Han travels to Los Angeles, the epicentre of fake beauty, in order to perform. Not surgery, but art – he is part of a performance which tries to raise awareness of the negative consequences of plastic surgery. ‘It is a messy business’, he contemplates. But of course it doesn’t stop him from continuing his job at home where he even administers to an American girl. 


The documentary is not just trying to focus on the absurd aspects of plastic surgery and the world of influencers and followers. It is also getting to the roots of these obsessions without ramming the message down your throat.


It shows Han’s human sides, his loneliness in a perfect room, his insecurity as he quickly flips his hair just before recording, his eagerness to be a better parent for his daughter. But at the same time he realizes how he is burdening her with the same traumas, because he’s not able to tell her to her face what he’s sharing with thousands of strangers: that for him she is perfect.