6. I’M A CYBORG, BUT THAT’S OK [SAIBOGUJIMAN KWENCHANA] (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTOR:

FEATURING: Su-jeong Lim, Rain

PLOT: Young-goon, a young woman who believes herself to be a cyborg, is institutionalized after a gruesome and nearly fatal attempt to recharge her batteries.  Among the characters she meets in the mental hospital is Il-soon, a kleptomaniac who steals not only small items, but character traits from the other patients.  Young-goon enlists Il-soon’s aid to help her discover and complete her purpose as a cyborg, while he finds himself coming to care about her—and seeks to find a solution to her troubles that will remain true to her delusion.

I'm A Cyborg But That's OK

BACKGROUND:

  • I’m a Cyborg was director Chan-wook Park’s first film after completing his popular and ultra-violent “Vengeance Trilogy” [Sympathy for Mr. Vengance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2004)].   It was the #1 film in Korea in it’s opening week, but tanked quickly thereafter and ultimately became a box-office disappointment.
  • The idea for the movie came to Park after he had a dream about “bullets coming out of a girl’s body.”
  • The mail lead, Jeong Ji-Hoon, is a top Korean pop music star who records under the name “Rain.”  He makes his movie acting debut in Cyborg.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The audience-pleasing image is Young-goon sprouting jets from her ratty sneakers so she can elevate to kiss Il-soon.  The most enduring image, however, is the vision of Young-goon as a combat cyborg, with bullets shooting from her fingertips and spent shell casings ejecting from her open mouth.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The main characters—a woman who self-destructs

Trailer for I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK

because she believes herself to be a robot, and a kleptomaniac with a fondness for bunny rabbit masks—would, at the very least, qualify as quirky.  Add elaborate hallucinatory sequences, including a massacre of the hospital doctors set to the rhythm of a gentle chamber waltz, and a flight to the Swiss Alps in the grasp of a giant ladybug accompanied by yodeling, and the movie becomes fantastic.  But what makes it weird is that the director takes the principals’ delusions at emotional face value, never allowing reality to bully and overcome his madmen’s subjective worlds.

COMMENTS:  We can easily imagine the 2009 Hollywood remake of Saibogujiman Kwenchana.   It might star Keri Russell as the cyborgette (sadly, Meg Ryan is too old), Justin Timberlake as the klepto, and Rosie O’Donnell as the wisecracking obsessive-compulsive who first foils, then assists, their forbidden love.  The lovers’ back-stories would be tragic, but not heartbreaking, and through their voracious sexual passion, they would cure each other’s neuroses where the doctors had failed, exiting the asylum arm in arm, ready to return to their once-promising careers as a caterer and an inventor.

What a difference a culture (and a talented director) makes.  Chan-wook Park found a way to strangen the romantic comedy, the most formulaic of all film genres.

The most important factor in I’m a Cyborg’s success is that it takes the delusions of its characters seriously.  In a curious way, this treatment does the characters—who are honest lunatics, not cute eccentrics—honor.

Though Young-goon can’t actually fire armor-piercing rounds from her fingertips or subsist on a diet of D-cell batteries, her emotional problems cannot be solved unless the rest of the world will treat her as a cyborg.  In fact, no one in the film ever explicitly denies she is a cyborg.  Young-goon’s mother (quite a piece of work herself), seems to accept it as a fact that her daughter is a cyborg; she’s only swears Young-goon to secrecy about the fact because she fears that if it became common knowledge, it would hurt the family restaurant business.  Il-soon never directly challenges the cyborg’s notion of herself; he strives  to solve her human problems with solutions designed for a cyborg.  Even the psychiatric staff never contradicts her.  It does seem to truly be “OK” that she thinks herself an automaton.

Of course, the audience knows Young-goon isn’t a robot, and part of the fascination of the movie is in watching the way her love and loneliness—feelings forbidden to cyborgs—leak through the cracks in her casing.  A cyborg shouldn’t be devoted to her granny, yet she finds a way to twist that emotion so that it becomes an integral part of her robotic prime directive.

Just as no one challenges Young-goon’s delusions, everyone plays along with Il-soon’s metaphysical kleptomania.  The patients all believe that Il-soon steals from them: not just the tiny trifles (like panties) which he physically pilfers, but abstract qualities, such as a fellow patient’s prowess at ping pong.  Il-soon can even steal the other inmates’ psychoses and take them upon himself for a time.  And the sociopathic Il-soon’ ability to selectively steal other people’s psychological characteristics becomes the movie’s turning point, the story’s emotional center.

The fact that psychiatrists in the film never directly contradict their patient’s delusions hardly matters.  Young-goon’s assigned doctor can’t even divine her charge’s secret identity.  The psychiatrists are not a part of the characters authentic existence; they don’t share in the magic, they can’t fly off to the Alps on the wings of a ladybug.  In the Hollywood version, the staff would be serious adversaries to the lovers.  In the Korean version, they are almost irrelevant: well-meaning, but impotent.  Young-goon easily could gun these fools (“white-uns,” as she dismissively calls them) all down, if only she was fully charged.  Her assigned therapist is always wrong at guessing her patient’s innermost preoccupations.  There are a number of times she makes an observation she believes will help her finally connect with Young-goon and break through to a psychiatric solution, only to find she truly does not comprehend her patient at all.  We watch the smile fade from her face; it’s her trademark gesture.  Living in an antiseptic, practical reality outside the realm inhabited by the lovers, the doctors are unable to conceive of their magical universe.

In contrast, Il-soon (through another heist of mystical proportions) is able to not only penetrate into Young-goon’s world, but to actually share  hallucinations with her.  In a beautiful and touching scene of maniacal realism, he instructs her how to escape her padded cell, by shrinking herself and allowing a ladybug to grasp the sides of her bed and whisk her away to the Alps, as he yodels magically.  With it’s CGI possibilities, it’s a scene that would have the Hollywood remake moguls drooling, and though they couldn’t have pulled of the effects any better than Park, at least they would have had the populist instinct to insert the lovers’ kiss in this money scene, instead of the psychological depth Park focuses on here.

Hollywood would also have the good taste to remove the scene where Young-goon, shorn of sympathy, massacres the hospital staff in a hail of gunfire and spouts of blood as a string ensemble plays a merry waltz.  Such a scene would alienate the film’s key demographic, women 18-35.  And, of course, Hollywood would replace Park’s ambiguous ending with something more life/sanity-affirming; Justin Timberlake’s devotion would drive away Keri Russell’s demons, and as the couple flees the asylum they would be heading straight for the nearest motel room to start getting very busy.  That’s the main difference between the formula romantic comedy and Park’s take on the genre: in the Korean’s story, being a cyborg is OK.  In Hollywood, it ain’t–cyborgs don’t knock boots.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…it seems Park has a weakness for a certain sort of kiddified whimsy, which might be, worryingly, an integral flipside of his talent for violence and mayhem… There are bizarre reveries… but this is a frustrating and unsatisfying piece of work.” – Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

“Like all psychotic ramblings, I’m A Cyborg flits between insane intensity and rambling dullness – but there’s a human heart pumping beneath its mad, metallic surface.” – Jamie Russell, BBC

“The patients’ subjective viewpoints are shown overlapping, colliding, and occasionally even intermingling and merging in moments every bit as romantic (if far more deliriously stylised) than any conventional love scene.” – Anton Bitel, Channel 4

IMBD ENTRY: Saibogujiman kwenchana

OTHER LINKS OF INTERESTMirror of the Official Site.  This site is slow-loading but quite interesting, containing a flash animation pop-up book.

DVD INFO (UPDATED 10/6/11): After half a decade of being unavailable to North Americans, Pathfinder Pictures has finally done the right thing and issued a Region 1 DVD (buy), though we haven’t seen it and are unsure if it contains any extra features.

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