How the hell do you market a film as wild and wooly as I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK to the American public? Even Tartan Films, the company that used Cyborg director Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy as the poster child of their short-lived Asia Extreme label, only released the film in the U.K., never bothering with an American release of any kind. Thanks in no small part to their contemporaneous financial woes, Tartan—the company responsible for the theatrical distribution of the three films in Park’s “Revenge Trilogy,” as well as Park’s directorial debut Joint Security Area and Three Extremes, an omnibus film featuring a short by Park—was understandably reluctant to release a romantic comedy directed by Park where protagonists grapple with depression and psychosis. After all, Cyborg seems to succumb to the perpetually mutating emotional problems that Park and co-writer Chung Seo-kyung are trying to study, send-up, and often embrace. It’s Park’s most volatile film to date, even more so than the seriously uneven Thirst.
That having been said, Cyborg is also probably Park’s most expressively resonant film. When it comes to depicting the delusional problems of their protagonists, Park and Chung adopt a benevolent laissez-faire attitude. While they’re staying in an unnamed mental institution, you see the world through the eyes of various protagonists, including Young-goon (Lim Su-jeong), a young woman that’s convinced she’s a robot, and Il-soon (Korean pop star Rain), a kleptomaniac that steals people’s trinkets and personality flaws. The jarring overload of moods and tones that these overlapping perspectives create makes the film’s hospital setting look like the Looney Tunes version of Shock Corridor.
But beyond that, you don’t really know what these mental patients have in common until they accidentally betray the phobias that motivate their consistently flamboyant problems. These characters are shown to be primarily off-putting and clownish because Park and Chung assume that they’re bucking an unspoken rule of melodramas about mental patients, the one where everyone tacitly agreed to treat illness seriously for the sake of feigning sympathy for disturbed protagonists. That kind of myopic, carnivalesque approach isn’t necessarily invalid in theory, but in practice, it makes Cyborg a very lumpy comedy.
For example, the film teases viewers with misleading introductions to Young-goon’s fellow patients. Trauma is reduced to the stuff of ridiculous gossip when one patient, who we soon learn is a mythomaniac, tries to describe everyone’s problems. Young-goon is told that Il-soon was gang-raped in the military and now wears a paper mask so he can hide his face, which he supposedly destroyed with cigarette butts. These are reductive, albeit colorful lies similar to the ones that the film’s one-dimensional psychiatrists tell themselves about how they need to treat patients like Young-goon. One psychiatrist assumes that Young-goon refuses to eat because she wants to kill herself, which we know is patently untrue. If anything, Young-goon is shown to be deeply confused about what her purpose in life is, grappling with the connection between her dead grandmother’s mental illness and her reasons for being alive. But to a group of people that don’t really care to ask questions or spend time trying to understand her, Young-goon just looks self-destructive.
That’s where Il-soon, Young-goon’s love interest, comes in. Rain, a surprisingly durable performer, was the perfect choice to play Il-soon, a charismatic, high-functioning schizoid. Psychiatrists have diagnosed Il-soon as “antisocial” because he wears an elaborate paper mask with bunny ears to hide his face and also steals both material things and habits from people. Il-soon later explains that he only does this because he’s “anti-vanishing,” having already shown that he steals people’s things to better understand them. He’s like the group’s sin-eater, a character that steals people’s fetishes so as to absolve them over their crippling problems. Il-soon’s a physician that heals himself by taking on other people’s problems.
Il-soon’s approach is diametrically opposed to the one adopted by all the certified psychiatrists in Cybourg. Il-soon isn’t trying to force a cure on Young-goon, just make her feel well enough that she can function independently. Survival is the ultimate goal in the film. In the last scene, Park gives us a hopeful look at a post-human world where nobody can judge Park and Chung’s characters. Il-soon and Young-goon might as well be the last people on Earth as they sleep undisturbed in a barren field. As schmaltzy and unhinged as it may be (yes, Park really does make a rainbow appear right next to Young-goon and Il-soon), this happy ending feels earned. If only the rest of the movie was this smooth.
Pathfinder's video transfer for their DVD release of I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK is plagued with combing throughout, but never so much that it's too distracting. The score is mixed higher than the dialogue throughout, but not so much to take you completely out of the film.
Apart from a really cheesy music video and some trailers for other Pathfinder titles, there's only a seven-minute behind-the scenes featurette. For seven minutes, you too can watch woefully unsubtitled footage of the cast and crew hard at work filming I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK.
It took five years for I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK to get an official U.S. release, and while its not for everyone, the film is one of director Park Chan-wook's best.