Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Movie Review: "I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK"

This is part 5 of my Park Chan-wook retrospective.

Park Chan-wook's charmingly titled film "I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK" (2006) was such a departure from his previous work that it took several years to find international distribution. Of course, if the restlessness of "Lady Vengeance" was any indication, a left turn was to be expected, but still... "a romantic comedy from the director of Oldboy" proved to be a hard sell. Even in Park's native Korea, the film mostly bombed. It had a great opening weekend though because the ladies love Rain, an international pop sensation mostly known in America as Stephen Colbert's nemesis. As this film proves, he's also one hell of an actor.

This film has been poorly described as a Korean "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" which is only accurate in the sense that they both take place in mental institutions. "I'm a Cyborg" avoids several common pitfalls of movies about crazy people. The patients aren't saints, or misunderstood, they're fucking crazy. And the staff aren't a blunt instrument of authority or conformity, they sincerely want to help and try their best. But the fact is that the patients are living on a different plane of reality than the staff. You can tell someone the voices aren't really there, but who's more convincing? You, or the voices?

The film is a love story over all else, and it's a damn charming one, though it gets off to a disturbing start: Young-goon (Im Soo-jung) is working on an assembly line when the radio begins dictating instructions to her, leading her to slit her wrist and stick an electrical wire into it. This is taken as a suicide attempt, and leads to her being committed to the asylum. Young-goon really believes that she is a cyborg, and prefers to talk to machines and listen to the radio for instructions rather than deal with humans. Unfortunately she refuses to eat, since her robot body can't process food.

She attracts the attention of Il-soon (Rain), a compulsive thief who steals intangible things like "Thursday", or people's personality attributes. The other inmates play along, almost as though sharing a group hallucination. At one point he steals someone's famous ping pong swing, infuriating the man who can now no longer play worth a damn. Il-soon does this because he fears that if he doesn't continue to steal he will shrink into a dot and disappear. Rain is alternately hilarious (wearing a ridiculous rabbit mask and overtly sneaking in plain sight) and touching in this role. He's charismatic, but damaged, and quite a handful for the staff.

Il-soon notices Young-goon when she asks him to steal her sympathy. She believes that she is a Terminator style combat robot and wishes to take bloody vengeance on the "men in white" for taking her grandmother away from her as a child (her grandmother believed she was a mouse). Yet she can't bring herself to kill anyone. Il-soon obliges, leading to an over the top fantasy sequence where Young-goon massacres all of the doctors and orderlies while the patients jump for joy. Of course it's all in her head, and she collapses from malnutrition.

As the doctors try every trick imaginable to get Young-goon to eat (electroshock therapy only convinces her that her battery is recharged) Il-soon is driven to save her. He has one skill the hospital lacks: he's insane. More specifically he plays along with Young-goon's delusions to solve it from the inside. At one point he tries to convince her that he can install a "Rice-Megaton" converter that will make her able to eat. There's something very touching about this. In order to deeply connect with someone you need to be able to see the world through their eyes. Most people aren't convinced they're robots, but it's a comic exaggeration of something very true.

Along the way, Park gets to indulge every last quirky device he didn't get a chance to wheel out in "Lady Vengeance". Reality is fluid, as you'd expect when every character interprets the world around them differently. In one touching scene Il-soon confides his deepest fears to another patient while shrinking down to the size of a doll in front of her. The oddest moment comes when he convinces Young-goon that her bed can fly, and begins to yodel a mountain tune as her bed flies out the window to meet him in Switzerland.

So that's what we've got. An adorable love story between two clearly insane people. Park's genre fans may not like the result, but I think it's wonderful and proves that he doesn't have to just make grim, violent thrillers. His two films since this one have gone back to that territory, but I think he just had to get this one out of his system. It's a great tonic for the grim realism of many modern movies, and deserves a cult following.

Other films directed by Park Chan-wook:

The Moon... is the Sun's Dream (1992)
Trio (1997)
Joint Security Area (2000)
Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)
Oldboy (2003)
Lady Vengeance (2005)
I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (2006)
Thirst (2009)
Stoker (2013)

No comments:

Post a Comment