“People may think that [this film] is a science-fiction film because of the word ‘cyborg’… but that is a trick that I deliberately put in,” Park Chan-wook informed the audience (via translator) at the UK premiere for his latest picture, I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK.
And how come? “The reason why I did it is simply because I think it is funny.” Ah, but of course.
After the operatic intensity of his Vengeance trilogy, you could understand that Chan-wook would have liked to take on something a bit lighter in tone, something – as he admitted in the post-film Q&A – that he could watch with his eleven-year-old daughter “legally”. Something, y’know, funny but not in a “that elderly woman’s taking out an axe” or a “he just beat him to death with a keyboard” sense.
While Cyborg doesn’t totally skimp out on putting you through the emotions, it is a delightful change of pace from a director most associated with, shall we say, gloomy vengeance pictures (and hey, Lady Vengeance is one of my favourite films of the decade).In the pre-credits sequence, we are introduced to Young-goon (Lim Su-jeong), a factory worker who, while assembling a radio, hears instructions to cut open her wrist, place live wires in the wound and plug herself into the mains. As you do.
Just like her grandmother before her, Young-goon is admitted to a mental institution, where she talks to vending machines and licks batteries instead of eating food. Amongst her fellow patients is Il-sun (Jung “Rain” Ji-hoon), a kleptomaniac who steals other patients’ souls. As you do.
Slowly, they catch each other’s eyes, becoming closer as Young-goon believes more and more that she is a cyborg. The obsessive belief that Young-goon holds in finding her true purpose as a cyborg leads her to malnutrition, which Il-sun vows to help her through, despite her belief that cyborgs do not and cannot eat “human” food. As you… yeah, you get the idea.
In case you haven’t noticed, Cyborg is an odd-sounding little film. The weirdness of the whole affair will probably grate for some viewers, but on the other hand it simply opens up numerous opportunities for the director’s imagination to take flight.
With usual DoP Jeong-hun Jeong in tow, Chan-wook delivers the film in striking shades of green and white – a wild departure from the monochromatic, bleak beauty of Lady Vengeance that pays off.
Many frames of Cyborg – particularly the final shot of a rainbow – could be sold in the Saatchi Gallery, such is their unconventional beauty. On the audio side of things, Jo Yeong-wook does his familiar cod-classical thing, with a segment of Sound Of Music-inspired yodelling particularly inspired.
For a romantic comedy to work, you do not only have to believe in the couple at the centre of the narrative, but also find joy in the supporting characters. Think of My Best Friend’s Wedding for a second – wasn’t Rupert Everett the best thing about it? Garden State, too – Peter Saarsgard lends the film something all too real.
While I’m A Cyborg doesn’t offer any stereotypical “gay best friend” roles, the supporting cast give the film plenty of zest, especially Oh Dal-su as a man who believes that everything is his fault and promptly gets his guilt stolen from him (his slur of “motherfucker” makes for one of the funniest scenes in the film).
As for the main couple, Ji-hoon – an absolutely massive pop star in Korea – makes his film debut with a sweet, charismatic turn as Il-sun that makes us believe in his romance with Su-jeong’s character. Soo-jeong, who took her weight down to a mere 39 kg for the role, is a revelation as Young-goon – an utterly adorable presence on screen, you find yourself caring for her as her health deteriorates, but never once losing your faith in her as her ambitions become odder and odder still.
It’s hard to find fault with I’m A Cyborg, but here’s why it doesn’t receive the full five stars – it feels at points like a conscious effort on the director’s part to make a film that doesn’t need to be gloomy and serious throughout; to make that film for his eleven-year-old daughter.
Still, if there’s any director out there that we can happily let his imagination take full flight, it’s Park Chan-wook. The only question is: what will he pull off next? Will we like it? Will he fall into a pattern? Who knows? As long as this particular auteur follows his own path, it’s OK. It’s OK.