“I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK” – 2007 New York Asian Film Festival Review

The oeuvre of Park Chan-wook seems designed to confound auteurists looking for a consistent directorial signature. He followed up the little-seen “The Moon is What the Sun Dreams Of” and “Threesome” with the massive blockbuster “Joint Security Area,” the grim “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” and continued his so-called “revenge trilogy” with “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance.”

Park’s new film, the sweet and delightfully oddball romance “I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK,” once again threw audiences for a loop. The result was a disappointing box office return upon its release last fall in Korea. While the film is not quite at the level of his previous films, it contains enough charm of its own and a unique visual style that beautifully reflects the unhinged nature of the inhabitants of the mental asylum where practically the entire film is set.

The film’s core romance occurs between Young-goon (Im Su-jeong), a young woman convinced she is a cyborg – and consequently refusing to eat, making her alarmingly thin – and Il-soon (pop music megastar Rain), a young man who is the resident thief, stealing both physical and imaginary possessions from the other asylum inmates. Il-soon has made it his mission to cure Young-goon, and he enlists the help of the other inmates.

Park creates a compellingly fantastic universe in “I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK,” confirming his statues as one of cinema’s supreme stylists. While “I’m a Cyborg” may at first seem like a radical departure for Park, it’s not as dissimilar from his previous films as one would think. Park’s regular cinematographer Jeong Jeong-hoon provides the film with a bright pop-art palette that enhances the fantastical nature of the proceedings. (Jeong also shot the similarly colorful “Dasepo Naughty Girls,” directed by E J-yong, which also screened at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.) Young-goon’s violent revenge fantasies where she transforms herself into a literal killing machine, mowing down the “white suits” en masse and shooting them with bullets out of her index fingers, provides the sort of bloody scene we have seen before from Park (although done here with a hint of self-parody).

The film’s tone is a strange mixture of whimsicality and darker elements. Young-goon’s habits, such as talking to her fellow machines (a vending machine, lamps, and other electrical objects) and “charging” herself by licking batteries in lieu of actual nourishment, are presented as charming eccentricities. However, the scenes where she is force-fed and given shock treatments are rather more disturbing.

The asylum setting lends itself to social commentary, much as it does in Milos Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” – as well as Ken Kesey’s novel – and James Mangold’s “Girl, Interrupted.” Young-goon and Il-goon’s disorders are caused by their family histories: Young-goon witnessed her grandmother forcibly committed when she was younger, and Il-goon’s parental abandonment created his desire to disappear.