by Craig Thomas
Chan-wook Park is one of South Korea’s most prominent directors and one of the best working directors in the world today. Among his most vocal supporters is Quentin Tarantino, who pushed to award Oldboy the 2006 Palme d’Or (it instead went to Michael Moore for Fahrenheit 9/11, one would assume for political, rather than cinematic reasons). Whilst it would be easy to tag him as part of the “Extreme Asia” movement of extremely violent films, this would detract from his ability as a filmmaker. Yes, his films are often hard-hitting and violent, but they are also fantastic, beautifully shot and directed.
I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK is somewhat of a departure for Park, being a romantic comedy, though the theme of revenge runs throughout the film (in some ways making in the unofficial fourth part of his excellent “revenge trilogy” of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance) and there are one or two scenes not for the squeamish. Set in a mental institution, it tells the tale of Cha Young-goon, (played by Su-jeong Lim) a new patient who thinks she is a machine rather than a human being. Inside, she meets a host of quirky patients with problems of their own.
This is not a social-realist film dealing with mental illness. It is a highly stylized, colourful work that often makes being insane look quite fun. What it is, is a film about denial. Struggling to overcome the loss of her grandmother, she denies she is a human being. Cha Young-goon’s mother denies both her mother and daughter have serious mental health issues, the former who is left until her problems become too great to ignore whilst the latter is told to hide her problems, until they manifest in what is mistakenly thought to be a suicide attempt.
Like Park’s previous work, it is also about the futile, destructive nature of revenge. She spends the film plotting with all manner of electronic devices (wall lights, vending machines, etc) in order to kill the “men in white” who took away her beloved, insane grandmother, whilst licking batteries to charge enough power (because cyborgs don’t eat) to kill them all.
Like all of his films, it is visually stunning. Every shot, without exception, is beautiful and credit must be given to the long-time collaborator, cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung. This is one of the greatest strengths of Park’s films. They are clean and precise, without ever being sterile or bland and can make even the most brutal and disturbing scenes of violence (of which in the film, there is only one) beautiful, yet hard-hitting.
Some might be concerned that the comedy would not survive the subtitles, but they needn’t be. The script is laugh-out-loud funny and there are also a lot of visual gags and despite the somewhat unusual setting there are also tender and heart-warming moments throughout with the blossoming romance between her and the “soul-stealing” Park Il-sun (played by Rain) offering a somewhat optimistic tone about the redemptive nature of love.
That said, it is not perfect and the one scene of violence does seem to jar somewhat with the rest of the film. Nevertheless, it is a rewarding watch and an interesting take on an often (rightly) derided genre. It’s also a great way to experience the beauty of a Park film if you are not fond of extreme violence.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK is available on Blu-ray and DVD.