I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK is playing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival. You can see the movie on Sunday, June 24 at 6:20pm at the IFC Center, or Saturday, June 30 at 8:15pm at the IFC Center. Click here to buy tickets.
Every filmmaker eventually fumbles. It’s just the odds – you can’t get it right every time. For truly gifted filmmakers there are two types of fumbles: the massive disaster, ie, Scorsese’s New York, New York, and the slight misfire. Park Chan Wook’s latest film, I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK, definitely falls into the slight misfire category.
Park’s visual talents have not abandoned him – the film, which is mostly set in a mental hospital ward, is visually sumptious, filled with beautiful colors and fluid, gorgeous shots. The camera floats through the halls of the hospital, doing minute dances with characters, but remaining just on this side of flashy.
But where the filmmaking is crisp and inspired, the story is soggy and meandering. Su-jeong Lim is Young-goon, a girl who would be pretty if she had some eyebrows. Young-goon works in a factory building radios, and we meet her in a scene that gives you plenty of hope, as Park plays her mother talking to a psychiatrist over Young-goon assembling a radio. The girls in the factory put the radios together by following instructions from a loudspeaker; Young-goon hears the voice telling her to cut her wrist, insert wires into the wound and then plug herself into a socket. When she’s blown back by the electricity and spasming on the floor, Park pulls back to show the lines of identically dressed women still working. “She’s a human being,” the mother says in voice-over, but the shot shows how reasonable Young-goon’s belied that she’s a cyborg really is, as she’s surrounded by robotic workers.
At first Young-goon is catatonic, and when she wakes up she refuses to eat, fearing the human food will break down her cyborg parts. She meets Park Il-sun, played by Korean pop star and mortal enemy of Steven Colbert, Rain. Il-sun was abandoned by his mother at a young age and is a kleptomaniac, among other issues. He travels the ward stealing other patient’s madness for a time, taking on their symptoms and leaving them more normal. It’s a terrific concept, but it never feels like it goes anywhere, never really amounts to anything.
That’s the problem with the whole film. I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK is an entry in the Quirky Love genre (see I <3 Huckabees, everything by Spike Jonze and everything by Michel Gondry), but the film overshoots the quirky mark, instead making everyone a little odder than needed, making it hard to identify with anybody in the movie. Also, Rain and Su-jeong Lim have an almost complete lack of chemistry (Rain seems like he only has chemistry with his mirror, to be honest. He’s the best looking and best kept-up mental patient ever), so the love part falls flat as well. There are some sweet moments, but my reaction to them was the cinema-goers pavlovian reaction to the way Park sets up shots, not to the way the characters interact, or any investment I had in them.
I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK is also cluttered with side characters, other lunatics in the asylum who eventually play no real part in the proceedings. After the halfway mark you begin to realize the fat lady with the flying socks and the guy who apologizes to everyone and walks backward will make no actual role in the plot, but are there only for atmosphere and to provide a second act (Rain steals their afflictions); after a while you start to resent them for showing up – scenes between a guy with an elastic band around his waist (in his head) and a girl who thinks she’s in the Sound of Music become irritating in their pointlessness, existing only to give some visual flourish to scenes.
This being a Park Chan Wook film, there’s violence – in this case fantasy violence. But even as the plot meanders, so does the violence. Young-goon has a fantasy where her fingers come off to reveal machine guns, and she sprays the hospital hallways with bullets. She later has the same fantasy, but about three times longer, as she moves throughout the hospital mowing down all the orderlies, doctors and nurses. Park shoots the fantasies incredibly well (and a little disturbingly, especially post-Virginia Tech. The second fantasy has a long shot from far above the action, reminiscent of security camera footage of shooting rampages), but there’s one too many. One would have sufficed, and by the time we get to the second, longer shoot out, it feels a bit like padding.
It’s that padding which makes the film ultimately frustrating. The whole second act feels like it’s there just to make this a feature length movie; maybe if I had a connection to these characters I would have enjoyed just spending time with them, but I felt consistently uninterested in these people. In his Vengeance films, Park Chan Wook showed that scenes that were dark and disturbing carried twice as much weight when they involved characters you liked and cared for. Someone should have told him the same rule applies when dealing with whimsy; while he’s technically able to get whimsy on film (especially a lovely scene where Young-goon and her bed shrink and are carried away by a huge ladybug), there’s no soul to it.
If this had been a film by another filmmaker I would have been sufficiently impressed by the visuals to give the story and characters something of a pass, but Park Chan Wook has shown that he isn’t a director who is only good with a camera; from Joint Security Area through his Vengeance films, he’s shown that he’s just as facile with actors and scripts. I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK is disappointing in large part because of who made it, but it’s also worth seeing for that reason. Even the least of Park Chan Wook’s films, it turns out, is worth your time.