Saturday, August 25, 2007

I'm A Cyborg But That's OK

Park Chan-wook's I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK - or, if you prefer, Saibogujiman Kwenchana - is a truly weird South Korean film that almost defies categorisation. I suppose you could call it a love story, but it's so far out on a limb that that really doesn't do it justice.

Lim Soo-jung plays Young-goon, a schizophrenic who is convinced she's a cyborg. She winds up in an institution after a botched attempt to wire herself to the mains is understandably misconstrued as a suicide bid. Still bitter about the institutionalisation of her grandmother - who believed she was a mouse - Young-goon feels that she should be taking revenge on the medical staff by killing the lot of them with her incredible cyborg powers. However, despite the rather sociopathic moral standards of the voices in her head, she can't quite bring herself to hurt anyone.

In hospital, she meets Il-sun, a kleptomaniac who claims that he can steal not only objects but personality traits as well. Bizarrely, he seems to be right about this, although whether he's using genuine psychic powers or just stringing people along by force of personality is open to question. Whatever the answer, however, there's no doubt that he's almost as mad as she is.

Young-goon wants him to remove her inhibitions so that she can turn into a cyborg and murder everyone. Il-sun wants to help her because she's not eating. (She only wants electricity.) They strike up a bond.

It's a very strange story, presented from the perspective of two characters who are plainly largely delusional. However, as the film continues, they seem to find themselves increasingly sharing common delusions, lovingly rendered in their full gleeful absurdity. The film manages to keep its institutional air without succumbing to the usual suffocating grays - the place is decked out in the sort of childlike pastels that you never see in the real world, and has an ornate garden that's every bit as artificial and contrived. Instead of looking like a particularly grim part of the real world, it comes across as a location entirely off to the side somewhere.

Interestingly, the story quite forcefully wants nothing to do with the notion of curing either character. Young-goon's refusal to eat is presented as a problem that needs to be addressed, because it's legitimately self-destructive. Her conviction that she's a cyborg is treated with a shrug of the shoulders, a "just the way things are" attitude. The film wants her to find peace within the framework of her existing personality, rather than remodelling her to make her sane.

The ending doesn't quite work for me - it feels as though, having reached its key emotional turning point, the film realises that it needs a finale and just tacks on something vaguely end-shaped. But that aside, it's a wonderful piece of work.