6. I’M A CYBORG, BUT THAT’S OK [SAIBOGUJIMAN KWENCHANA] (2006) December 22, 2008Posted by 366weirdmovies in Weird Movies.
Tags: Chan-wook Park, Comedy, Korean, Romantic Comedy
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PLOT: Young-goon is a young woman who believes herself to be a cyborg, and is institutionalized after a gruesome and nearly deadly attempt to recharge her batteries. Among the characters she meets in the mental hospital is Il-soon, a kleptomaniac who steals not only small items, but entire character traits from the other patients. Young-goon enlists Il-soon’s aid to help her discover and complete her purpose as a cyborg, while he finds himself coming to care about her–and seeks to find a solution to her isolation that’s true to her delusion.
- I’m a Cyborg was director Chan-wook Park’s first film after completing his popular and ultra-violent “Vengeance Trilogy” [Sympathy for Mr. Vengance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2004)]. It was the #1 film in Korea in it’s opening week, but tanked quickly thereafter and ultimately became a box-office disappointment.
- The idea for the movie came to Park after he had a dream about “bullets coming out of a girl’s body.”
- The mail lead, Jeong Ji-Hoon, is a top Korean pop music star who records under the name “Rain.” He makes his movie acting debut in Cyborg.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The audience-pleasing image is Young-goon sprouting jets from her ratty sneakers so she can elevate to kiss Il-soon. The most enduring image, however, is the vision of Young-goon as a combat cyborg, with bullets shooting from her fingertips and spent shell casings ejecting from her open mouth.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The main characters–a woman who self-destructs
Trailer for I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK
because she believes herself to be a robot, and a kleptomaniac with a fondness for bunny rabbit masks–would, at the very least, qualify as quirky. Add elaborate hallucinatory sequences, including a massacre of the hospital doctors by a cyborg energized by shock therapy set to the rhythm of a gentle chamber waltz, and a flight to the Swiss Alps in the grasp of a giant ladybug accompanied by yodeling, and the movie becomes fantastic. But what makes it weird is that the director takes the principals’ delusions at emotional face value, never allowing society’s reality to intimidate their subjective worlds.
COMMENTS: We can easily imagine the 2009 Hollywood remake of Saibogujiman Kwenchana. It might star Keri Russell as the cyborgette (sadly, Meg Ryan is too old), Justin Timberlake as the klepto, and Rosie O’Donnell as the wisecracking obsessive-compulsive who first foils, then assists, their forbidden love. The lovers’ psychological back-stories would be tragic, but not heartbreaking, and through their voraciously sexual passion for each other, they would cure each others neuroses where the doctors had failed, exiting the asylum arm in arm, ready to return to their once-promising careers as a caterer and an inventor.
What a difference a culture (and a talented director) makes. Chan-wook Park found a way to strangen the romantic comedy, the most formulaic of all film genres.
The most important factor in I’m a Cyborg’s success is that it takes the delusions of its characters seriously. In a curious way, this treatment does the characters–who are honest lunatics, not cute eccentrics–honor.
Though Young-goon can’t actually fire armor-piercing rounds from her fingertips or subsist on a diet of D-cell batteries, her emotional problems cannot be solved unless the rest of the world will treat her as a cyborg. In fact, no one in the film ever explicitly denies she is a cyborg. Young-goon’s mother (quite a piece of work herself), seems to accept it as a fact that her daughter is a cyborg; she’s only swears Young-goon to secrecy about the fact, because she fears that if it became common knowledge, it would hurt the family restaurant business. Il-soon never directly challenges the cyborg’s notion of herself; he strives to solve her human problems with solutions designed for a cyborg. Even the psychiatric staff never contradicts her. It does seem to truly be “OK” that she thinks herself an automaton.
Of course, the audience knows Young-goon isn’t a robot, and part of the fascination of the movie is in watching the way her love and loneliness–feelings forbidden to cyborgs–escape through the cracks in her casing. A cyborg shouldn’t be devoted to her granny, yet she finds a way to twist her emotion so that it becomes an integral part of her prime directive.
Just as no one challenges Young-goon’s delusions, everyone plays along with Il-soon’s metaphysical kleptomania. The patients all believe that Il-soon steals from them: not just the tiny trifles (like panties) which he physically pilfers, but abstract qualities, such as a fellow patient’s prowess at ping pong. Il-soon can even steal the other inmates’ psychoses and take them upon himself for a time. And the sociopathic Il-soon’ ability to selectively steal other people’s psychological traits becomes the movie’s turning point, the story’s emotional center.
The psychiatrists in the film never directly contradict the patients’ delusions, either, but that hardly matters. Young-goon’s doctor can’t even divine her charges’ secret identity. The psychiatrists are not a part of the characters authentic existence; they don’t share in the magic, they can’t fly off to the Alps on the winds of a ladybug. In the Hollywood version, the staff would be serious adversaries to the lovers. In the Korean version, they are almost irrelevant: well-meaning, but impotent. Young-goon easily could gun these fools (“white-uns,” as she dismissively calls them) all down, if only she was fully charged. Her doctor always seems to be guessing her patient’s thoughts wrong. There are a number of times she makes an observation she seems to believe will help her finally connect with Young-goon, only to find she guessed wrong. We watch the smile fade from her face; it’s her trademark gesture. Living in an antiseptic, practical reality outside the realm inhabited by the lovers, the doctors are unable to conceive of their magical universe.
In contrast, Il-soon (through another heist of mystical proportions) is able to not only penetrate into Young-goon’s world, but to actually share hallucinations with her. In a beautiful and touching scene of maniacal realism, he instructs her how to escape her padded cell, by shrinking herself and allowing a ladybug to grasp the sides of her bed and whisk her away to the Alps, as he yodels magically. With it’s CGI possibilities, it’s a scene that would have the Hollywood remake moguls drooling, and though they couldn’t have pulled of the effects any better than Park, at least they would have had the populist instinct to put the lovers’ kiss in this scene, instead of the psychological depth with which the Korean director infuses it.
Hollywood would also have the “good taste” to remove the scene where Young-goon, shorn of sympathy, massacres the hospital staff in a hail of gunfire and spouts of blood as a string ensembles plays a merry waltz. Such a scene would alienate the film’s key demographic, women 18-35. And, of course, Hollywood would replace Park’s ambiguous ending with something more life/sanity-affirming; Justin Timberlake’s devotion would drive away Keri Russell’s demons, and as the couple flees the asylum they would be heading straight for the nearest motel room to start getting very busy. That’s the main difference between the formula romantic comedy and Park’s take on the genre: in the Korean’s story, being a cyborg is OK. In Hollywood, it ain’t–cyborgs don’t knock boots.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…it seems Park has a weakness for a certain sort of kiddified whimsy, which might be, worryingly, an integral flipside of his talent for violence and mayhem… There are bizarre reveries… but this is a frustrating and unsatisfying piece of work.” – Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
“The patients’ subjective viewpoints are shown overlapping, colliding, and occasionally even intermingling and merging in moments every bit as romantic (if far more deliriously stylised) than any conventional love scene.” – Anton Bitel, Channel 4
IMBD ENTRY: Saibogujiman kwenchana
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST: Mirror of the Official Site. This site is slow-loading but quite interesting, containing a flash animation pop-up book.
DVD INFO: Region 1/no region discs of I’m a Cyborg are out-of-print and scarce, but secondhand copies can still be found as of this writing. It’s unknown whether extras are available on region 1 discs. A region 3 2-disc set is available with English subtitles from Bear Entertainment/CJ entertainment. It contains behind-the-scenes featurettes (unfortunately untranslated), cut scenes, and trailers. Hopefully a region 1 disc will be reissued soon; otherwise, this curious title might fall into obscurity in the United States.