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I'm A Cyborg on blu-ray

 
 
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I'm A Cyborg, But That's Okay
cast: Lim Su-jeong, Jung Ji-hoon, Choi Hie-jin, and Lee Yong-neo

director: Park Chan-wook

105 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Tartan Asia Extreme DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
I'm A Cyborg, But That's Okay (aka: Saibogujiman Kwenchana, in Korean) is something of a departure for its director. Park Chan-wook is arguably best known for his 'Vengeance' trilogy Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, but rather than serve us up another dish of misery, anguish and violence, Park has decided to bring us a romantic comedy in the style of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie.

Much like Amélie, I'm A Cyborg is the story of two unusual people who manage to find love. However, where Amélie featured eccentrics and took place in a largely fictitious representation of Montmartre in Paris, this film features people who are actually mentally ill and takes place in a largely fictitious representation of a Korean mental institution. Young-goon (Lim Su-jeong) is from a rather troubled family. Her mother is of a nervous disposition and her grandmother, who brought her up, spent the later years of her life believing that she was a mouse until eventually the family decided to ship her off to a home.

Wounded by having her grandmother dragged away from her, Young-goon becomes convinced that she is a cyborg (as a cyborg would have been able to catch up with the ambulance and mercilessly execute the people that kidnapped granny). As a cyborg, Young-goon can communicate with machines and when a radio tells her to slash her wrists and wire herself to the mains in order to recharge, Young-goon gets shipped off to the funny farm. Now thoroughly convinced that she is a cyborg, Young-goon refuses to eat, preferring instead to lick batteries. As a result, Young-goon nearly starves to death until an equally whimsical and equally beautiful fellow patient Il-sun takes an interest in her and convinces her to eat by persuading her that he has built a machine that converts the chemicals in rice into energy.

I'm A Cyborg is a film that is endlessly easy to look at. It is full of vibrant colours, beautiful actors and perfectly executed CGI scenes such as a slow-motion cyborg killing-spree, and a static electricity powered flight of fantasy accompanied by some very skilled yodelling. The camera moves about the asylum and the grounds with considerable freedom and the sets themselves feature group therapy rooms that look like sculptures and assembly lines that seem unending. The film is scored with appropriately sentimental (Amélie-style) accordion music and the whole thing hangs together well and looks beautiful. The problem is that it really is not anything else, as, despite being billed as a romantic comedy, the film seems to lack any real humour as cultural differences conspire to make the humour in this film largely inaccessible to western audiences.

Firstly, the idea of presenting mad people as inherently funny has a good deal less traction in the west than it might once have had. For example, I doubt that people now would see a film like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975) as being as funny as it was said to be at its release. Public awareness of mental illness and mental institutions has increased to the point where it is more natural to associate them with dramas and horror films than good natured, knockabout whimsical comedies.

Secondly, by opting to contain no actual jokes, I'm A Cyborg becomes utterly dependent upon its subject matter to generate laughs insofar as a lot of the humour seems to flow from using the patients to satirise Korean stereotypes. However, I doubt very much that western audiences are likely to be familiar enough with South Korean culture to recognise the humour in a man who takes the blame for everything and walks backwards so as not to offend, or a young woman who never got over being refused membership of a youth choir. Lacking a deep knowledge of Korean society, these jokes pass harmlessly over our heads resulting in a film that is simply not funny.

Even more problematic is the fact that the film's dramatic elements are underwritten. Traditionally, dramas revolving around mental illness tend to have quite clear character arcs based upon personal actualisation as a patient works their way through their problems, as in Potter's The Singing Detective (1986) or James Mangold's Girl, Interrupted (1999). Even the Dudley Moore vehicle Crazy People (1990), a romantic comedy set in a mental institution, had a clear narrative shape, but I'm A Cyborg seems strangely unwilling to go down this path, which is odd as two of the most intense scenes in the film are the scenes in which one character convinces Young-goon to eat, and another scene where Young-goon tells the doctors about the day they took her grandmother away, suggesting that far from being whimsical and eccentric, granny was actually deeply disturbed. The result is a narrative that is strangely amorphous, as the film seemingly has nothing in particular to say about anything.

I'm A Cyborg is ultimately not funny enough to work as a comedy and it lacks the focus and discipline of a proper drama and while its visuals take it some way along the road to redemption, it is never anything more than a pretty mess.
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