I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK first published by Film4
Film summary: In Park Chan-wook’s eccentric ‘romantic comedy’, the inmates are running the asylum, and love, though not a cure, is the best therapy.
Review: Park Chan-wook’s international reputation is rooted in his so-called Vengeance Trilogy, making it tempting to describe his latest work, the romantic comedy I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (Ssa-i-bo-geu-ji-man-gwen-chan-a), as something of a departure for the director – but then, each of his three ‘vengeance’ films (not originally conceived by Park as a trilogy at all) in fact displays a remarkable breadth and versatility of genre, while conversely this new film, as its title implies, is no straightforward romantic comedy. With its plot concerning a young woman who plans deadly retribution against her perceived enemies while spending time in an institution, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK bears at least as close a family resemblance to Lady Vengeance as Lady Vengeance does to its two ‘vengeance’ predecessors (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Oldboy) – although in the end, like all Park’s work, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK is very much its own film, and very little like anything else out there.
Ever since the trauma of witnessing her beloved grandmother (Sohn Young-soon) being taken away by white-clothed doctors, Young-goon (Lim Soo-jung) has harboured the belief that she is a cyborg – and now, following a disturbing incident of self-harm in a radio factory, Young-goon has been sent to a modern asylum. There she keeps largely to herself, talking to the lights and vending machine, taking instructions from a radio, and plotting to return her grandmother’s dentures and kill all the “white-‘uns” – if only she can first find a way to lose her all too human sense of sympathy. The problem is that her habit of licking batteries instead of eating food means that she is also starving herself to death. It is a breakdown from which she may never recover.
Il-soon (Jung Ji-hoon) is another patient, diagnosed as an anti-social schizophrenic ever since he was abandoned as a teen by his mother. He wears rabbit masks, he brushes his teeth obsessively, and he is convinced that he is disappearing into a dot – but more importantly he is a most unusual thief, carefully observing his victims’ routines before stealing their personality traits from them. Il-soon is quick to notice Young-goon, and he is way ahead of the doctors in getting to the heart of what is troubling her – but can he find a way to save Young-goon from herself and to give new purpose to her existence?
Romantic comedies are full of figures desperate to slough off their loneliness and partner up – but Park transforms this familiar trope into something altogether more unpredictably unhinged by weaving his film from the private, often incompatible fantasy lives of an ensemble of deranged characters. Here the delusion buried and repressed becomes the delusion shared, as the patients’ subjective viewpoints are shown overlapping, colliding, and occasionally even intermingling in moments every bit as romantic (if far more deliriously stylised) than any conventional love scene.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK is the first Korean film to have been shot with the HD Viper FilmStream Camera (which gave Zodiac and Miami Vice their distinctive look), and features more digital effects than any of Park’s previous films – but as with its semi-robotic protagonist, all the technology under its hood is held together by a core of humanity. Rich in detail, character and colour, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK is a dramatisation of group therapy at work, it is a coming-of-age tale (with the odd SF action sequence thrown in), it is an allegory of co-existence in our own mad world – but, most importantly of all, it is funny, poignant and always surprising, with a healthy disregard for the ‘normal’ conduct of genre. And, last but not least, it features the meanest yodeling to have been heard in a cinema since Raising Arizona (1987).
Verdict: This uncategorisable asylum-set ensemble dramedy backs up its extraordinary visual effects with a lot of heart – and that’s more than OK.
© Anton Bitel