Following the popularity of his romantic comedy Windstruck (2004) with Japanese audiences, South Korean director Kwak Jae-young temporarily relocated to Japan to deliver Cyborg She, a sci-fi variation on his signature formula which takes the offbeat behaviour of an empowered female lead as a jumping off point for a mix of slapstick humour and abundant sentimentality. Kwak came to fame with My Sassy Girl (2001), a trend-setting smash in which a well-meaning college student develops a sense of responsibility towards an emotionally erratic young woman whose adventurous nature compensates for her occasionally abrasive personality. Since then, Kwak has revisited this premise via changes in genre trappings with varying degrees of success: Windstruck had fantasy elements and Cyborg She was made back-to-back with My Mighty Princess (2008), which added martial arts to the mix.
The hapless male protagonist here is Jiro (Koide Keisuke), a lonely Tokyo student who always spends his birthday alone and eats at the same restaurant every year after buying himself a gift from a department store. One year, he notices a beautiful girl (Ayase Haruka) stealing some fashionable clothing from the store, only for her to turn up at his dining table later that evening. After she causes some trouble at the restaurant, hey spend a hectic night together, before she abruptly disappears. Exactly one year later, the girl returns and saves Jiro from being shot by a crazed gunman, but this time she reveals that she is a cyborg, a “Cyberdyne Model 103” that has been sent from the future to protect Jiro from tragic events. She moves into his apartment and their ’relationship’ develops in episodic fashion with the cyborg assimilating to human experience by getting drunk and dancing at a disco, but also using her powers to perform heroic acts, such as saving a bystander from being hit by a car.
Much of the charm of My Sassy Girl stemmed from its roots in a series of true stories that writer Kim Ho-sik posted on the internet describing his unusual relationship with his girlfriend, which may explain why Kwak’s subsequent efforts have felt rather contrived by comparison. Cyborg She showcases some spectacular special effects, including a large-scale disaster sequence, with the director throwing in amusing nods to such genre touchstones as The Terminator (1984) and Back to the Future (1985). However, the fact that the film’s Japanese title translates as ‘My Girlfriend is a Cyborg’ indicates that, genre hopping aside, Kwak has not strayed too far from the template of his breakthrough success.
Indeed, it is precisely because Kwak has capably mined this scenario before that the flaws of Cyborg She soon become infuriating. After an entertaining extended opening in which Jiro and his robot companion flee from an angry waiter and a police officer when she skips out on paying the bill for a meal of epic proportions, Kwak becomes stuck in a narrative rut as he is unsure how to fill in the running time between establishing his high concept premise, and bringing it to an emotional conclusion. There is an unpleasant incident in which a knife-wielding maniac goes on the rampage at an all-girls school, and an over-extended tribute to rural Japan wherein Jiro is sent back in time to visit his hometown, both of which are awkwardly juxtaposed with scenes of the cyborg performing tasks at incredible speed or trying on various fashionable outfits, not to mention the obligatory lengthy montage set to pop music. Kwak has always had a tendency to go off on narrative tangents – see the theme park encounter with the AWOL solider in My Sassy Girl – but they usually complement the overall theme rather than serving as incidental filler.
Yet the biggest problem is the under-written lead roles: the appealing Ayase is stuck with a part that is notably less independent than Kwak’s other female protagonists because the cyborg’s supportive programming gives her a set of instructions rather than a personality and Koide struggles to make his shy loner sufficiently amiable. Whereas his predecessor in My Sassy Girl was enthusiastic and resourceful, albeit always one step behind in his interactions with his companion, Jiro is rarely assertive enough to engage audience interest and the love story at the center of Cyborg She suffers as a result of his passivity. As such, what should at least have been a slickly appealing commercial vehicle stumbles in the second act and never really recovers in time for the inevitable tear-jerking finale.