|Directed by Park Chan-wook, 2006, 105 minutes, starring Su-jeong Lim, Rain, Ho-jeong Yu, and Yong-nyeo Lee.
Having grown up a lifelong Japanophile, over the last little while I've come to really love Korean television dramas and kooky Korean pop culture. I've always held disappointment in "extreme" titles from the nation, mostly because the bulk of them never seem very extreme, and in many regards plenty of them have liberally borrowed from other countries' success stories. Korean comedy films, however, have had a very swift upturn in recent years, in a way that makes me excited for future releases, something I don't feel very often when I think about Japan and Hong Kong. The quality, the clever wit; it's enough to make a person nearly feel forgiving, even for completely hating some of the trash from Korea, such as The Wig. Or not. Of course, there are going to be bad apples in any market, and Korea is no different, but I have to say that when I group Park Chan-wook's 2006 offering I'm A Cyborg, But That's OK (aka Saibogujiman kwenchana, aka I'm A Cyborg) together with several other films that don't fall into the genres that qualify for review on Snowblood Apple, I feel really good about the future of Korean cinema, and I look forward to discovering many more of the contemporary films from this creative, charming, interesting nation.
I can also particularly relate to this story: as a child and teenager I was kind of crazy. Not in the sense of, "Oh he's going through hormone stuff, he's zany these days, guys," but rather having actual psychological issues stemming from a mixture of childhood traumas and completely awful genetics that made me not exactly the easiest person to be around. Even today I'm still more than left field and weird, having never really found a niche that encompassed who I was, and have come to the inevitable conclusion so many eventually face: you can't escape who you are, even if that encompasses mental illness. But over time I learned how to adjust myself to the way the world is outside of me, like the calibration of a machine. It's like living behind a piece of glass, but I do take pride that it is living, as opposed to psychological surrender. Even if I do screw it all up on occasion.
Part of having mental illness is fighting the urge to succumb to it. Any person with any of the (increasingly common) mental disparities that afflict so many people today will tell you that the temptation to just give in and "be crazy" is something that increases with every episode, with every day that a person feels like they are not like everybody around them. Whether that means feeling like an alien or a ghost or even a cyborg, it's a tough pill to swallow (pun certainly not intended) to have to be an eternal outsider to the way normal society works. But for some reason, some of those with illness fight the pressures pulling them down and attempt to make a go at life, while others simply don't, or literally can't. Some days, still, I want to just throw in the towel and just let it be what it is. The truth of the matter is that some days I do truly wonder what it would be like to no longer try to translate myself to everything around me, and instead just go through life the way I see it in my mind – in the way that the main protagonist does in this movie.
"I'm not a psycho, I'm a cyborg."
Cha Young-goon (Su-jeong) is nutso. The girl is nice, sure, but she's bonkers as hell. In the opening minutes of the film we see her diligently working in a factory. While all the women around her aimlessly plug away at their pieces of consumerist junk, Young-goon quickly and mechanically finishes construction of a radio. All the time she's doing this, she's apparently taking direction from a loudspeaker, which tells her what to do and how to do it. After finishing the radio, the loudspeaker promptly instructs her to slit her left wrist, stick wires attached to a two-pronged electrical plug into her arm, seal the wrist with blue tape, and then plug herself into the wall outlet. As expected, her crazy ass gets electrocuted.
Waking up in a mental institution, Young-goon is totally out of it. As she is wheeled zombified around the hospital, a young woman we assume to be a nurse tells the girl all about the interesting characters in this madhouse. There's a man who looks like he listens to the Misfits and has a slicked down long bang and everything, but who in reality, says the woman, is a farmer who fell in love with a deformed animal ("their love was only platonic"). And then there's Park Il-soon. Sigh. Il-soon (played by the preciously cute Korean R&B singer Rain) is utterly adorable, playing ping-pong in a blue bunny mask. She also intimates, when he scratches his butt cheek, that he sewed up his tail end as a result of being gang-raped in the army. This turns out to be total crap though because the woman herself is in the hospital for treatment, and after every electroshock session she loses her memory and just makes up stories about everybody to replace the blank spaces in her brain. But it makes a set of good stories, and how.
As Young-goon finally rises from her spaced-out dreamworld, she continues to be completely out of her mind. She puts in some dentures and begins talking to the halogen lights overhead, and intimates things to the drink machine in the hallway. This is where Il-soon discovers her during his nightly thieving. As Young-goon becomes better physically (but not at all mentally), she realizes Il-soon's thieving ways (somehow he manages to steal a whole day, Thursday, and somehow everything attached to it, including Young-goon's Thursday panties) and so she asks him to steal her sympathy for other people. It turns out that Young-goon's granny was taken to a mental institution years ago because she would put in false teeth and eat pickled radishes everyday. But Granny forgot her teeth when she was loaded up and driven off, and now she's unhappy in the institution without her teeth, not being able to eat the radishes she so loves, so the only thing standing between Young-goon and delivering the dentures are the "white 'uns," the nurses and doctors at the sanatorium. If Il-soon steals the sympathy that Young-goon has for the nurses' grannies and their sadness, she will be able to kill all the "white 'uns" in retaliation, and make a break for it. Oh, and Young-goon totally thinks she's a cyborg, so she won't eat anything because it will slow down her gears internally, and also she needs to get to Granny so that Granny can tell her what her purpose in life as a cyborg is. All totally reasonable, then.
Of course I jest because by the laws of the internet I'm required to make at least part of a review about a comedy funny; this isn't the depressive death pit of Jigoku, so the academics aren't necessary. But I'd be remiss to write this film off as just some mere zany comedy of errors. I'm completely loathe to use hyperbole, so rest assured I damned well mean it when I say that Park Chan-wook's I'm A Cyborg, But That's OK might very well be one of the best films I've ever seen. A complete commercial failure that didn't click with South Korean film audiences, it is, while a comedy full of intelligent and sideways humor, also one of the most arresting dramas I've had the great fortune of watching, and the accolades from critics and the festival circuits have been much publicized.
I don't care about that crap though. I'm in the minority of extreme Asian cinema-goers who've never been particularly interested in Park's work, and his short film Cut was and remains a confusing mish-mash of comedic irreverence and taut foreboding that doesn't seem to mix to this day. But I have to say that what he's managed to do in I'm A Cyborg is more than just make a film; it's a testament to the power of a story, and to that naive, innocent universality that falls by the wayside as each of us grows up and fleshes ourselves out into jaded and experienced individuals. I've always believed that if you can make somebody laugh, even if it's by making an ass out of yourself, just disarming them that small bit opens up the whole world that might've seemed to separate you before. Using humor to disengage the viewer from what he or she might think about mental illness or hallucinations or paranoia or psychotic breakdowns or even (perhaps that which is most maligned) romantic comedies, he slowly introduces the offbeat story of a young man and woman whose deep love for their family members and whose own personal traumas, while once ostracising them from others, now endear them to each other. This is a sweet, sweet movie, but what makes it special is that it is a film that will appeal to people across many demographics by migrating through many genres.
It's also, of course, funny as hell. The supporting cast of characters is filled to the edges with loons so loveable and clever that the acerbic wit almost seems natural in everyone's daily life (and invariably, with the film over, a boy like me finds himself sorry it isn't). The girl who wishes to be a Swiss songstress is a particularly potent background character; she talks and looks only at others through a mirror because, should their eyes meet, the result "would be scandalous," a line that never stops being riotous. In fact, any character who is given the chance to speak really delivers, no matter how minute the line or the role. The Misfits farmer's constant apologies, and the chubby girl's eye-rolling vanity, are the kinds of character traits/flaws that translate well between the West and Seoul; that they aren't handled merely as characters with kooky aspects to provide superficial cinematic interest, but instead as the actual transgressions of real human beings, makes them much more potent. But it is, of course, the acting of young sensation Su-jeong Lim and K-pop/R&B idol Rain (known among the fangirl/boy set as Bi) that really sells the story to the heart (and the humor to the gut). Watching these two and wanting their romance to unfold isn't far off from the way people look at love as young teenagers, with the sort of innocence and self-obsession and isolation that dissolve with growing adulthood. Secluded in this institution, these two have nothing to focus on but their own neuroses and each other. And as time goes by, they begin to realize that those neuroses, those painful accumulations of a lifetime that seemed to leave them disjointed from the rest of society, is the tie that binds them to one another.
By the film's end, unlike a great many of the films that I and others have reviewed on this site, a truly captivating story has been established about characters that the viewer cares for. What makes this film unique is that, despite the romance, these are still two completely insane people, who could never survive in the modern world on their own or even together, and so the expected cliché ending becomes an impossibility to us. In the same way, reality becomes an impossibility to both them and everyone else in the hospital, and rather than lust for the "big victory" of reintegrating themselves with the rest of the culture outside of the sanatorium, they take great pride in the small progresses that fill their secluded world. It is a type of innocence, the kind that borders on saccharine childhood nostalgia, that goes straight to the heart, and by film's end things that seemed completely bonkers suddenly seem quite loving and sweet. The line "The vending machine says hello!" is, in context, easily one of the most touching lines in any film I've seen, and Park Chan-wook is to be congratulated for that.
Certainly, this is a Snowblood Apple Favourite; I have never fallen in love with a film so instantly, and come to cherish it so fast, as I have I'm A Cyborg, But That's OK. It is among the most enjoyable works of modern cinema.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Compelling reasons to watch this film: a gagillion/10
Rain: instantly I am a fanboy
Films in a Similar Style: although patently unique, I'd call this a 200 Pounds Beauty comedy by way of Park's previous work, a moving and thoughtful film that engages and warms all at once.
*** Essential ***
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Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.im-a-cyborg.co.uk/ - Tartan Films are showing this movie (retitled as I'm a Cyborg) at UK cinemas from April 4th 2008, and will be releasing the movie in both DVD and Blu-ray formats on May 26th
http://www.moviexclusive.com/review/i'mcyborgbutthat'sok/i'mcyborgbutthat'sok.htm - succinct and thoughtful review at movieXclusive.com
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcxbPedrggU - trailer at Youtube
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I'm_a_Cyborg,_But_That's_OK - Wikipedia page
http://www.lovehkfilm.com/panasia/im_a_cyborg_but_thats_ok.htm – Love HK Film thinks it's "uneven" but likes it
http://www.filmstalker.co.uk/archives/2007/09/im_a_cyborg_but_thats_ok.html – Film Stalker digs it
http://lunapark6.com/im-a-cyborg-but-thats-ok.html – Lunapark6 also really likes it
http://daily.greencine.com/archives/003238.html - an interesting review from two totally different perspectives - a father and his daughter