I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (싸이보그지만 괜찮아, Park Chan-wook: 2006)

Cha Yeong-gun believes she is a robot and one day when working in a factory she decides to plug herself into the electrical mains. The shock doesn’t kill her but it does put her into a mental hospital where she is surrounded by a group of people with their own psychological problems…

Following up his acclaimed ‘Vengeance’ trilogy was always going to be an interesting prospect for Park Chan-wook. When he announced that his next project would be a romantic comedy the news was obviously greeted with a large degree of interest. How would the visually rich director whose reputation for unflinching violence handle a rom-com? Given the finished piece – and when looked at in the context of his other work – I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK isn’t anywhere near as far removed from the rest of his C.V. as the ‘rom-com’ announcement originally sounded – and this may be both the reason for both its highlights and its flaws.

I’m A Cyborg may be a rom-com, but it’s not a nice warm cuddly one

Kicking off with a stunning factory scene with the opening credits sneaked in to the CGI imagery, I’m A Cyborg sets it’s off-centre tone straight away. What may be either a suicide attempt or a delusional moment of selfharm is performed quite coldly and it’s difficult to get a sense of a handle on where this is heading. It’s a nice mis-step as Park Chan-wook’s film continues to explore its themes of identity, and you get the sense that he’s delighting in confounding our expectations. It’s a brave choice and for a while it works. It’s only as the film moves on and an hour in where no closer to who any of these people are that it starts to wear a little thin, I’m A Cyborg may be a rom-com, but it’s not a nice warm cuddly one.

Almost every shot in I’m A Cyborg is stunning. With a team of extraordinary set designers, a pretty amazing cinematographer (Jeong Jeong-hun)and editor, Park Chan-wook has made a film that is consistently bright, bold and totally hypnotising. With a shine to it that verges on fairytale-like, I’m A Cyborg flits in and out of its characters fantasies and storytelling – true or otherwise – with stunning ease. Unfortunately though, despite all the shine the result of this is also that the characters are kept at an arms length from us and the film is in dire need of someone to anchor us at least a little. It’s not that the characters are unlikeable, it’s just that by their nature they’re ill-defined. No pun intended.

Lim Su-jeong (A Tale of Two Sisters) is excellent as the haunted Yeong-gun, a role that requires her to be dislocated from the rest of the cast in a dangerously one-note character, but its one that she just seems to mange to hit effortlessly. However it’s down to Korean pop idol Jeong Ji-hun – also know as Rain – as Park Il-sun to keep the film ticking over – his energetic quirkiness  is all over the place but manages to tie not just the characters but the plot together.

Interestingly, I’m A Cyborg still manges to incorporate some of the ultra-violence that Park Chan-wook is known for, something that the director may even be knowingly teasing us with here. He’s not falling back on the sensationalism though as it is a key moment as a particularly aggressive scene is played out in Yeong-gun’s head. It’s a fantastic scene in every sense of the word. A stunning wide-angled shot of the staff of the hospital running away from the gunfire in the gardens is a mouth-open moment – if there’s one director who knows exactly how to use violence in todays cinema (forget your Tarantino, he feels basic in comparison) then Park Chan-wook is it.

I’m A Cyborg may have been a self conscious choice for Park Chan-wook to downsize his style – and with it the expectations of his rather large ‘vengeance’ fanbase – and he certainly succeeds in engaging with some even more fantastical elements of filmmaking which are not a million miles away from the hyperstylised visuals of Oldboy but which are used here without the urgency and are alot less provocative. The thing is, Park Chan-wook is an incredibly intelligent director and while you get the impression that with I’m A Cyborg he felt he was making something a little more fluffy, he doesn’t so much make a rom-com but a series of scenes pieced together under the generalised theme of ‘needing companionship and love and in a crazy world’ – none too subtle in a film based in a looney bin where the shortcomings of each patient is off-balanced by the others. You end up with the feeling that as overlong as I’m A Cyborg is (and it’s overstreched by about 20 minutes) that Park Chan-wook could have run with any one of the stack of ideas, characters and moments in here (another trilogy perhaps?) but then decided to throw them all into one film,sacrificing some audience intimacy in the long run.

A few memorable scenes aside, I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK is ultimately rather underwhelming. It’s certainly a film that works better on a second viewing as you feel less pulled in different directions by the disjointed narrative, and the cold distancing between the film and the viewer is a little less apparent. This is still an above average film, but sadly its enjoyable performances, original ideas and stunning visuals make the shortcomings of the script just a little too apparent.

싸이보그지만 괜찮아 (I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK)
Directed by Park Chan-wook
Produced by Lee Chun-yeong, Park Chan-wook
Written by Jeong Seo-kyeong, Park Chan-wook
Starring Rain, Lim Su-jeong, Choi Hee-jin, Lee Yong-nyeo, Yoo Ho-jeong, Kim Byeong-ok

I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK Image © Moho Films