Park Chan-wook, 2006
Starring: Rain, Im Soo-jung
After making a number of gory, ultraviolent revenge films (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) and a horror film (the Cut segment in Three... Extremes), Park Chan-wook turned his attention to an entirely different genre: the romantic comedy. Sort of a South Korean take on Amélie set in a mental asylum, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK relates the tale of Young-goon, a young lady who believes she is a cyborg. One day, while working in a radio factory, she cuts her wrist and attempts to put a power cord in her veins to recharge herself. This is interpreted as a suicide attempt and she is institutionalized. Her obsession with being a cyborg also manifests itself in her refusal to eat human food, thinking it will kill her, conversations with machines instead of people, etc.
Soon she meets Il-soon, a mild schizophrenic/kleptomaniac who believes he can steal other people’s souls. When her condition begins to deteriorate, Il-soon tries to save her and comes up with a way to convince her to eat. He also tries to help her get to the bottom of reoccurring dreams about her grandmother, who was also mentally ill. When Young-goon becomes determined to “detonate” herself, Il-soon accompanies her, secretly intent on protecting her.
I really liked I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK and it got mostly positive reviews, but there are some definite flaws with this weird, somewhat experimental, kind of endearing film. Using Amélie and (500) Days of Summer as examples, rom-coms typically succeed or fail based on the strength of three things: the male and female leads, their chemistry/developing relationship, and the side characters. Despite the lack of a developed male lead for most of the film, Amélie works based on the strength of Audrey Tautou and the well-written, funny side characters, as well as the concluding romantic chemistry between the two leads. (500) Days of Summer fails because the only character that is remotely interesting or developed is Joseph Gordon Levitt, who spends the bulk of the film either whining or pining in neither humorous nor compelling ways.
I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK succeeds because the two lead actors, pop star and actor Rain and Im Soo-jung (A Tale of Two Sisters), are dedicated to their roles and give believable performances. As with Amélie, the film concludes on a hopeful, positive note, and focuses on their budding romance. But unlikely the quirky and often odd side characters in Amélie, the other patients in the mental hospital are often weird for the sake of being weird and lack any other purpose or character development. There are scenes of wonderful surrealism, such as Young-goon’s fantasy sequences, but also plenty of moments likely to confuse less attentive viewers. Park’s constant need to make things weird takes away some of the heart that could have made this film truly successful.
Still, it’s nice to see a change of pace from Park’s previous films and to know that he is interested in challenging himself. For some reason the film never found its way to the U.S. outside of festival dates and a DVD release from Pathfinder. It is also currently streaming on Netflix. Cyborg is worth watching if you’re a big Park fan or if you enjoy quirky romantic comedies, despite the scattered, somewhat forced plot and lack of cohesion in the narrative. Park’s usually colorful sets, imaginative visuals and decent CGI work are delightful, as always, and he gets a solid handle on the central romance in the film. At the least, it is worth a rental and anyone who loved Wristcutters: A Love Story (which I hated), is going to be over the moon about Cyborg.