(2006) Directed by Chan-wook Park; Written by Chan-wook Park and Seo-Gyeong Jeong; Starring: Su-jeong Lim, Rain and Hie-jin Choi; Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay represents a kinder, gentler Chan-wook Park… sort of. Compared to many of his other works (notably The Vengeance Trilogy, Thirst), the story is lighter in tone. Although it’s nominally a comedy, the film defies easy descriptions or categorization – an odd mixture of the tragic and fanciful. Park’s film plays as sort of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as filtered through Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s lens. It’s a bittersweet confection, with a pungent aftertaste.
After she wigs out while working an (highly stylized) electronics assembly line and slits her wrist, Cha Young-goon (Su-jeong Lim) is committed to a mental institution. She refuses to eat, believing that she’s a cyborg. Lim is perfect for the role of Young-goon, with her frail, almost otherworldly appearance (she apparently lost a considerable amount of weight for the role). She’s distant and unreachable, existing on a different plane of reality. As we learn about her history, it becomes more apparent why she inhabits her cyborg identity. The real world is too painful to bear, compared to the one her mind has constructed. Her psychosis can be traced to trauma she experienced when her mentally ill grandmother was taken away by men in white coats. Her mental illness manifests itself in a number of specific quirks. At mealtime she brings an assortment of batteries with her for sustenance. She has nightly conversations with the vending machine in the hallway, and wears her grandmother’s dentures when she’s particularly stressed. Many of these scenes are witnessed from her point of view, without commentary by the other characters. It’s just an accepted norm in the mental ward.
Young-goon falls under the watchful eye of another patient, Park Il-sun (played by the Korean singer Rain). Unlike Young-goon, he was self-committed, and returns to the hospital when things get too difficult in the outside world. He wears a variety of homemade masks to combat his fear of shrinking away into nothingness. As a child, he was abandoned by his mother, and has been grappling with his loss ever since. He also displays kleptomaniac tendencies, as he steals personal items from his fellow patients. Il-sun’s interest in Young-goon enables him to gradually emerge from his shell. As a slightly less damaged individual, he’s uniquely qualified to lead her back to some semblance of reality. It’s a bit like the blind leading the blind, but the two eventually establish an uneasy relationship. Park Il-sun devises a novel solution to her refusal to eat, succeeding where the clinicians failed.
The other patients are less developed, more or less reduced to caricatures to provide colorful window dressing to the mental health setting. One of the characters is an obese lady who “flies” with the help of two mismatched rubber booties. Other notable patients are a man who can’t stop apologizing for everyone else, and a woman who’s a pathological liar.
Park strikes a balance between drama and comedy, more often than not finding the sweet spot somewhere in-between. I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay never lapses entirely into slapstick or wallows in melodrama. Park is no stranger to keeping the audience off balance with his other films, toying with perceptions and preconceptions. He doesn’t view his subjects with a clinical, passive eye – it’s decidedly from the patients’ skewed perspective, as opposed to the outside looking in, as many films covering mental illness do. This is exemplified by one scene when Young-goon’s suppressed aggression for the hospital workers plays out. She exacts a deadly rampage (if only in her mind), as bullets fly from her fingers and bloody doctors and nurses fly everywhere. We understand her anger, played out in a sudden cathartic burst (Hey, I knew I’d work in catharsis sooner or later!).
(Minor spoiler alert!) The ending is fittingly poetic and open ended. As suggested by the title, Young-goon’s condition is a matter of management, and coming to terms with who she is. Her identity issue is probably here to stay in one degree or another, so finding a “cure” is really a non-issue. There’s no easy resolution in the third act, and the ambiguous conclusion might seem like a non-ending to some, but there’s really nothing more to be said. It’s an intriguing addition to Park’s resume, as well as a worthy compromise between style and substance. Aside from a scene with Rain’s gratuitous yodeling, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay is a trip worth taking.