After conquering both the festival circuit and the margins of the international multiplex with the critically celebrated ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ comprising Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), the ever-ambitious Park Chan-wook aimed to explore new cinematic territory with his seventh feature, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK. Obviously intended as a transition project to enable Park to step off the retribution treadmill and therefore move away from the emotionally exhaustive territory of his recently completed ‘Vengeance Trilogy’, this exercise in partial reinvention was expected to broaden the director’s core audience while not alienating those admirers whose adulation of Oldboy had lead the film to attain instant cult classic status. Sadly, appreciation for this comparatively lighter excursion into Park’s cinematic psyche has been weighed down by its poor box office performance in South Korea, where the film was dropped by the major cinema chains after a mere two weeks on general release due to complete audience apathy, a harsh reversal of fortune following the impressive performances of Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, which were the fifth and seventh most successful titles of their respective years in the domestic market. In the UK, a territory which had been particularly receptive to Park’s work, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK would be one of the last films to be handled by Tartan, the distributor that pioneered the ‘Asia Extreme’ brand but was forced to file for bankruptcy in July 2008. While subsequent revelations about the business practises of Tartan have ultimately alienated many of the Asian cinema enthusiasts who initially bemoaned the closing of the company, it was arguably the distributor’s aggressive and innovative marketing of Park’s ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ which led to the director becoming a favoured filmmaker with the cineaste crowd.
The narrative of I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK is more episodic than those of Park’s previous features, with its exploration of the mental state of a troubled young woman allowing for some particularly eccentric digressions. Factory worker Young-goon (model-turned-actress Lim Soo-jung) is admitted to a mental institution after attempting to charge herself with equipment from the production line on which she works, due to her belief that she is actually a cyborg. At first, she rarely communicates with the staff or those on her ward, preferring instead to have one-sided conversations with light bulbs and vending machines with which she feels a mechanical affinity. Fellow patients include the impotent Dae-pyung, compulsive forgiveness seeker Gyu-suk, and plastic surgery addict Soo-jin. However, it is Il-soon (all-round entertainer Rain in a rare artistic outing), who steals the personality traits of others and disguises himself with a bunny mask, who takes a real interest in Young-soon and, when she refuses to eat on the grounds that food will cause her to ‘malfunction’, tries to stop her from starving by claiming to be an engineer and making ‘adjustments’ to her ‘mechanics’. However, the sincerely concerned Il-soon is not without his own problems, as explained in flashbacks that show him struggling to exist outside the institution; Il-soon suffers from the belief that he is fading until one day he will be merely a dot and, at times of personal despair, he visualises himself shrinking to microscopic size and being ignored by those around him. Fortunately, his devotion to Young-goon prevails and he sets out to sabotage her notion that she is actually a nuclear bomb, a conviction that stems from a recurring dream in which her late grandmother explains the purpose of her existence.
There is some subtle, and some not-so-subtle, genre-splicing going on here, and Park’s frequent flirtations with science-fiction are playful yet precise, especially in the occasional excursions into manga–inspired fantasy. When Young-goon and Il-soon share their first kiss, the soles of Young-goon’s trainers become rocket launchers, enabling her to hover above the ground as her footprints are scorched into the grass, while there is also an extended set-piece in which Young-goon’s hands become machine guns, with the patient proceeding to remorselessly wipe-out the staff of the institution in which she is being treated. Such sequences offer brilliant cinematic interpretations of the fusion of the human body and machinery that is one of the key characteristic of Japanese animation, while the aforementioned massacre is at once very violent and gleefully childish in its execution. Although Oldboy was adapted from the manga of the same name, its stylistic excesses were grounded in the universal milieu of the urban revenge thriller, while I’m a Cyborg finds Park indulging in flights-of-fancy which encapsulate anime at both its most charmingly innocent and thrillingly subversive. However, these sequences are something of a ruse, examples of the director’s ability to dazzle which belie more serious themes; Young-goon is not even entirely sure of what a cyborg is – the only description that she can offer is, ‘I think it it’s kind of like of robot’ – while Park at no point suggests that she is anything other than depressed and delusional. The scenes that feature Young-goon’s largely unsympathetic mother (Lee Yong-nyeo) show Park’s frustration with the inability of elders to understand, or even acknowledge, adolescent anxiety with the increasingly infuriated parent seeming more concerned about neighbourhood gossip than with her daughter’s well-being.
If the views of the director on the subject of the generational divide in South Korea are clearly established, it is not as easy to discern how Park feels about the matter of institutionalization. Young-goon is confused and prone to bouts of deep depression due to problems that are obviously very much rooted in family trauma, and she is not best served by the textbook diagnosis that is offered by her psychiatrist, or the insistence on a strict dietary regime. However, it is only within the confines of the hospital walls that she is able to address some of her issues (although her eating disorder can only be dealt with by playing along with her delusions rather than deconstructing them) and then accept the necessity to form relationships with human beings. In this respect, there are similarities between the mental institution in I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK and the women’s prison in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance in that the patients, like the inmates in Park’s previous film, are largely left to inhabit their own world, developing some semblance of life and routine as a means of getting through the day, while the doctors observe more than they intervene, almost as if they are allowing their patients to heal each other through a sense of shared alternative logic. Although I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK may still be somewhat adrift in Park’s oeuvre – it lacks the propulsive narrative drive of Oldboy, does not deal with the disturbing moral quagmires of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance or prove as satisfying in genre terms as Joint Security Area (2000) – this is a surreal yet serious attempt to speak to those young people who question their place within contemporary South Korean society that exhibits creativity and concern in equal measure.