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THN’s Korean Cinema Style Week 11: Park Chan Wook – I’m A Cyborg…But That’s OK

Im A Cyborg MAIN BWNext year will see three of South Korea’s most commercially successful and critically acclaimed directors present their English language debuts. Kim Jee Woon, Park Chan Wook, and Bong Joon Ho have already proved themselves in their homeland, and here at THN we are taking a look back over their past efforts. We continue to look at the films of Park Chan Wook, join us each week over the course of the next few months as we explore The Land Of The Morning Calm.

Director: Park Chan Wook

Year:  2006

Cast: Lim Su Jeong, Rain, Oh Dal Su, Choi Hie Jin, Kim Byeong Ok,

Plot:  After an apparent suicide attempt, Cha Young Goon is sent to a psychiatric hospital. She also believes she is a cyborg and so doesn’t feel the need to eat. A fellow patient sets about encouraging her to not starve to death.

After hitting, what seemed at the time, a career high that could never be beaten, it was time for Park Chan Wook to try something different. His Vengeance Trilogy was receiving praise the world over, and he had made a name for himself thanks to the dark themes, gruesome visuals, and thought provoking content. Something new was needed, something completely removed from his previous work. Enter I’M A CYBORG…BUT THAT’S OK, a bizarre fantastical romance that had more in common with the quirky worlds of Jean Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, than it did Park Chan Wook. However, this wasn’t just a sudden change in approach triggered by some career crisis. I’M A CYBORG…BUT THAT’S OK came from a very touching place, and that was Park’s decision to make a film more aimed at teenagers, of which his daughter was one.

I wanted to make a movie that my daughter and her friends could watch; one that dealt more with adolescent teenage concerns.

With that quote it’s kind of easy to see where Park is coming from…kind of. The film has a very definite whimsical charm to it. It may take place in a mental institution, but each of the characters is crafted with a lovingness that makes it easy to relate or at least empathise with. The characters are infused more with slight quirks than what would be described as traditional mental illnesses. It is certainly an innocent fantasy that Park has sculpted this asylum into. Rather than delve deeply into specific illnesses, we have a series of patients who are almost like cartoons. There is the man who must always walk backwards and believes everything is his fault, a woman who suffers from mythomania and gives her own ‘interesting’ accounts of everyone’s back stories, just to name a couple. Their illnesses are often played for laughs but never in a cruel and mocking way. Seeing Shin Deok Chun (Oh) take the blame for everything or just contemplate that certain actions may have been his fault, is humorous in a bittersweet kind of way.

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In terms of the main characters we have Cha Young Goon played by Lim Su Jeong, best known for her role in A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, and Park Il Sun played by Korean pop sensation, Rain, in his first major acting role. Both these young stars bring an innocence to their roles which is essential but challenging to pull off. Young Goon believes she is a cyborg and has been admitted due to an attempt to attach electrical wires to herself via cutting her wrists. Seen as a suicide attempt; and because of a grandmother who believed she was a mouse, Young Goon looks to be recharged but believes food will cause her to malfunction. Il Sun is a kleptomaniac with a difference, he is able to steal people’s souls and their traits. Il Sun feels an immediate connection with Young Goon and gives himself the task of convincing Young Goon to eat. Their entire relationship brings into question how those in psychiatric care are treated. The doctors’ solution to Young Goon’s refusal to eat, is to give her shock therapy and force feed her. On the other hand, Il Sun decides to play into her delusions, by “creating” a device that he then pretends to surgically place inside her. He tells her this device will convert food into energy without harming her. This works to a degree, but is it healthy to humour the mentally ill girl? Il Sun isn’t completely oblivious to the dangers that his tactics may introduce, as we see in the final moments of the film.

Park is either brave or naive to tackle such issues with a bizarre and comedic tone. Many may argue that his handling of mental illness is much too simplistic and cutesy. For a film he was aiming at his teenage daughter, there is one scene which is particularly violent. Young Goon imagines herself as a fully charged cyborg with guns for fingers and massacres the entire hospital staff. Was this a way of reminding us that Young Goon does possess dangerous thoughts, or perhaps a criticism of the treatment she has undergone only fuelling her potential for violence? It’s a tricky one to analyse, but the whimsical tone helps to establish this within fairytale parameters.

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The memorable visuals are aided by a simply unforgettable score. The melodies and rhythm are of that rare calibre, where you’ll find them immediately engrained in your mind like tunes that have always been there. Composed by Jo Yeong Wook, who worked with park on JOINT SECURITY AREA, the score captures the playful darkness reminiscent of the works of Danny Elfman and Jerry Goldsmith’s score for GREMLINS. Just listening to the opening chords of ‘Saiboguee Tansaeng’ playing over the opening credits gives ideas of creeping around in dark and secluded areas, but in a cheeky and mischievous kind of way. Other highlights include the trumpet centred ‘Haipiendu’ which has a nostalgic quality to it.

The film’s narrative is as convoluted as the minds of the protagonists. There isn’t so much a plot to speak of, but the story never seems stretched out as we are treated to gorgeous flights of fancy that include excellent work on behalf of the special effects teams and stunning production design, creating an environment which is most certainly odd, but in an intrigueing way. Some of the key memorable sequences include the massacre previously mentioned, where Park shows his affinity for shooting high action sequences in simplistic ways. Whereas OLDBOY had the hallway tracking shot, I’M A CYBORG…BUT THAT’S OK treats us to a single long shot of the hospital’s garden as Young Goon walks around firing at the doctors and nurses. With squibs going off and people having to be in the correct place, you have to admire the choreography. Another wonderful scene sees Young Goon shrink to miniscule proportions and be carried away by a ladybird. These scenes are things you may expect to see in music videos of adverts, but are obviously well suited to their target audience.

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The romantic element of the plot is very important here, and it’s the first time Park has really strayed into such a genre. There’s the romance in OLDBOY, but let’s just say that’s an entirely different beast. Il Sun’s devotion to Young Goon is sweet and enthralling because he is intrigued by her quirkiness, but refuses to try and fix her “problems”. He buys into her fantasies to a certain degree and this allows him to explore her mind in a much more natural way. Had Il Sun tried to change her completely or believed unquestionably what Young Goon presented as the truth, then it would both weaken him as a character and taint the genuine love he feels for Young Goon.

I’M A CYBORG…BUT THAT’S OK is an inventive and fresh piece of work from a director who had already proved himself as a great talent. It’s uneven in construction and tone, but after exploring the darkness of vengeance for 4 years the man was obviously in desperate need for a change. The whole film could be split into mini-vignettes and each one would be filled with fantastic music and creative aesthetic flourishes. This may not be Park’s best, it may be patchy, and it may be different…but that’s OK. After all as Park comments on his daughter’s opinion on the film:

…after she had watched it, she said that it was the next best film to PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. SO there you go!

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What To Take To STOKER? As this is a brighter and jollier turn for Park, I wouldn’t expect much of the tone to follow into STOKER. The romantic element of STOKER, if any, seems more in line with the sinister observations of OLDBOY. Hopefully we’ll get a powerful score, well composed shots, and characters that make an effort to understand one another as well as coming into conflict.

STOKER is released 1st March 2013. It stars Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, Dermot Mulroney, Matthew Goode, Lucas Till, Jacki Weaver, and Alden Ehrenreich.

You can find all the articles in the series here.

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Luke likes many things, films and penguins being among them. He's loved films since the age of 9, when STARGATE and BATMAN FOREVER changed the landscape of modern cinema as we know it. His love of film extends to all aspects of his life, with trips abroad being planned around film locations and only buying products featured in Will Smith movies. His favourite films include SEVEN SAMURAI, PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, IN BRUGES, LONE STAR, GODZILLA, and a thousand others.

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