Director Park Chan-Wook is perhaps seen as the leading figure in the new wave of Korean cinema which has struck a chord with audiences across the world, usurping both Hong Kong and Japan as the “go-to” nation for groundbreaking cinema in East Asia. With his “Vengeance” trilogy complete, Park’s venture into romantic comedy may seem a peculiar choice, but this film still carries over themes from his previous work and the style is still undeniably all his. I’m A Cyborg But That’s OK focuses on two patients in a mental hospital and the relationship that develops between them. Young-Goon (Im Soo-Jeong) believes she is of cybernetic origin and spends her time talking to vending machines and licking batteries for sustinence, while Il-Soon (Rain) spends his time wearing a variety of masks and has the ability to steal other people’s “powers” (or, in this case, mental handicaps).
Park is no stranger to flights of fancy and visual jiggery-pokery and such a premise as this lends itself perfectly to his aesthetic. With science-fiction elements mixing with a variety of eccentric supporting players, few scenes pass without a quirky characteristic played out to its full, often with the aid of CGI. The visualisations of the patients’ delusions give the film a sense that perhaps they aren’t crazy after all, even if they are exaggerated to the point of unbelievability. But in doing so, the potential darkness of such a situation is mostly avoided.
I say mostly, because it’s still a rather uncomfortable watch. Much of the humour is simply derived from the fact that the people on screen are basically mental, and while there are some very funny moments, I found it hard to give myself fully to the film’s lightness dealing with what’s in every other essence a somewhat bleak existence. Humour always played a factor in Park’s previous films in even darker areas of human nature (also when concerning the themes of entrapment and injustice that also appear here), but deriving jet black comedy from the more macabre or disturbing somehow rests easier on my mind. Perhaps that says more about me than the film.
And in much the same way as Takeshi Miike’s Zebraman was his idea of a family film, Park’s view of what might be suitable viewing for his young daughter (for whom he made the film) is unconventional to say the least. Before the screening at the Barbican as part of the London Korean Film Festival, he asked us to view the film from the perspective of the a 12-year-old, and while I would’ve probably got a kick out of this when I was 10 years younger (good God), this isn’t the kind of picture you’d get from the House of Mouse. One repeated manic hallucination of Young-goon’s is just about as violent as anything in Lady Vengeance.
However, there is much to like about the film. The leads are endearing and engaging, and the oddball assortment of fellow patients provide a colourful backdrop. And there is no denying the talent of Park, who appears to be just as comfortable shooting fantasy as much as reality, blurring the boundaries wherever he sees fit but not in such a way as to disorientate the audience. It’s plain silly in parts, but you buy into it. What on paper sounds like a cross between Amelie and The Terminator at first is ultimately far more inspired than its intial plot summary suggests it would be. In fact, its tone is more akin to Joon-Hwan Jang’s Save The Green Planet, another recent Korean film that flits between sci-fi thriller, gruesome horror and lowbrow comedy with gleeful abandon.
From a lesser director, this would be considered nothing short of their finest hour, but coming from the director of Oldboy, it’s perhaps not as assured as it should be, even if it’s not the kind of film he’s used to making. While its failure at the domestic box-office appears to have forced Park to return to the blood-soaked tales that made his name, it would be a shame if he didn’t hop genres again in his career. It’s not a masterpiece, but that’s OK.
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