Tuesday, 2 October 2007

I'm a Cyborg But That's OK (2006) - South Korea

Director: Park Chan-Wook
Starring: Im Su-Jeong, Bi (Rain)
Running Time: 105min

The success of Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance has made Park Chan-Wook an internationally recognised director, with many in the Western world eagerly anticipating his next film. ‘I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK’ debuted in the number one position upon its release in Korea, but sales fell in the coming weeks, and it was pulled from many screens by the third weekend. Despite this, the film has generally been received well critically, and did manage to scoop the Alfred Bauer Award at the 57th Berlin Film Festival.

The story revolves around Young-Goon and II-Soon, two patients of a mental hospital who form an attraction to each other. Whilst Il-Soon’s mental problems appear controllable, Young-Goon believes that she is a robot, and frequently ‘charges’ herself using a transistor radio and batteries. She also refuses to each food. The plot unfolds as Il-Soon tries to convince Young-Goon that she is not a robot and can live a normal happy life with him.

From the moment the opening credits start to roll, it is clear that this is a Park Chan-Wook film, as his familiar visual style fills the screen and a joyful classical musical score plays away in the background. Much of the aesthetic must also be credited to cinematographer Jeong-hun Jeong, who worked with Chan-Wook on his last two feature films, as well as the short ‘Cut’, and continues to provide lush frameworks for Chan-Wook to build his stories upon. With this familiarity comes a sense of anticipation as to what might follow after the opening credits, with Chan-Wook’s films rarely being anything if not interesting.

‘I’m A Cyborg…’ is no different. Whilst it is essentially a love story, the decision to set the film in a mental hospital was a creative - if not a box-office friendly – masterstroke. It is able to make the same sort of statement about mental health as ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ did many years before, by letting us into the world of the patients and providing an insight into their weaknesses. From the initial tour that Young-Goon is given, it would appear that she has been admitted to the craziest mental hospital in history. Thankfully, we find out that the women giving her the tour is indeed a patient herself, who makes up stories about people to replace the memories she loses during her weekly shock treatment.

Although the dynamic between the Il-Soon and Young-Goon is the primary focus of the film, it is also interesting to see the interaction between Il-Soon and the other patients. Il-Soon believes that he has the capability to ‘steal’ abilities from the other patients by making them wear a mask and then holding hands to transfer the skill. For instance, one patient always walks backwards everywhere, and is constantly apologising to people for things that he hasn’t done. When the transfer has taken place, he no longer believes he can walk backwards and becomes rude, because he has ‘lost’ the art of politeness. This could be seen as Chan-Wook subscribing to the ‘just snap out of it’ feeling about mental health problems, which is a lot more common in Asia than it is in the Western world.

The romance between the two leads blossoms as the film continues to its climax, with Il-Soon becoming more aware of Young-Goon’s feelings of a lack of purpose in life, which he then tries to give her. In reality the romance is secondary to this theme, which is frequently discussed throughout. The relationship between Young-Goon and her similarly mentally challenged Grandmother (she believes she is a mouse, and will only eat radish) is the vehicle used to illustrate this, with the Grandmother recurrently saying “the purpose of life is…” before being cut-off. One prominent moment is when she is attached to a bungee-cord – bringing a wry smile to anyone who has seen ‘Cut’ – upon her death, ready to take her to heaven, with Il-Soon unable to stop her flying upwards before she can finish the sentence. However, the moment that truly sums up this theme is when the Grandmother is being taken away in an ambulance to the mental home, with Young-Goon following her on a bike, trying to catch up with the ambulance, to give the Grandmother her dentures she has left behind. Young-Goon manages to get within a certain distance of the ambulance but can get no closer, providing a perfect metaphor for the feeling of being unable to establish the purpose of life.

Despite the meaning of life being the main theme, Chan-Wook has managed to squeeze his favourite topic of vengeance into the film. Young-Goon is told by her Grandmother to avenge her being taken away by killing the ‘white-uns’, otherwise known as the mental hospital nurses. Young-Goon fantasises over this on a couple of occasions, with the use of up-beat classical music in the background, and a more mechanical aesthetic clearly separating these scenes from the rest of the film.

Although there are clear messages running through ‘I’m a Cyborg…’, for a Chan-Wook film, it does seem a little unfocused in places, taking quite a long time to hit home with the points that it makes. That said, the premise itself is interesting enough to carry these themes along, and there is enough wacky imagery to keep you entertained for the majority of the running time. It certainly isn’t the full-on visceral experience of his previous films, but ‘I’m a Cyborg…’ is an interesting aside that is definitely worth a watch for fans of Chan-Wook, or those looking for something slightly different in the romance genre.

Buy the Hong Kong DVD (English subtitles) now at Play-Asia