Monday, November 28, 2011


(1973) Directed by Woody Allen; Written by: Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman; Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton and John Beck; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

I first watched Sleeper sometime in the 1970s when I was just a little kid, and it left an indelible impression that demanded repeated viewings over the years.  It was most likely my first Woody Allen film – not a bad starting point for anyone looking for a more accessible entry into Allen’s unique brand of comedy.  Sleeper is best described as cerebral slapstick, having more in common with Allen’s earlier, broader efforts such as Take the Money and Run and Bananas, but representing the evolving sensibilities of a maturing filmmaker.  Amidst the numerous sight gags, Allen weaves in substantial amounts of social satire, pop culture jabs and literary references.

Sleeper takes place in a future that seems alien, yet not too unrecognizable from our own time.  Miles Monroe, played by Allen, wakes up after he was placed in cryogenic suspension, following a botched operation.  He‘s surprised to discover that 200 years have passed, and the existence that he knew is gone.  In its place is a bizarre, sanitized world rife with contradictions and run by a totalitarian regime.  The physicians who revived him are part of an underground movement dedicated to toppling the government, and Miles is simply a pawn in their greater scheme.  As they attempt to learn more about Miles’ former life, it’s the perfect opportunity to skewer several significant 20th-century figures, including Howard Cosell, Joseph Stalin and Billy Graham.  Miles serves as the ideal, befuddled guide to bridge the past and future worlds for the audience, as he tries to make heads or tails of his weird new surroundings (At one point he exclaims, “My God! I beat a man insensible with a strawberry!”).  He’s another iteration of the self-deprecating, neurotic everyman that Allen would continue to refine over the years.

Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton) is the other key player in Allen’s dystopian comedy.  She’s the epitome of the 1970s “Me Generation,” exemplified by her egocentrism and relentless pursuit of hedonistic pleasures.  She enjoys her isolated, bourgeois existence, favoring her anesthetized, controlled world and electronic comforts (such as the orgasmatron and servant robots) over whatever happens outside her door.  Luna doesn’t understand why there would be an uprising, turning a blind eye to the injustice that’s going on under her nose.  She’s perfectly happy as long as she can continue to entertain her like-minded friends and create her awful poetry.

In addition to the numerous one-liners riddled throughout, Sleeper showcases Allen’s talent for physical comedy.  His movements are choreographed chaos, like a modern-day silent comedy.  In fact, Allen originally envisioned Sleeper as a silent film, and several scenes play without dialogue, depending primarily on facial expressions, movement and upbeat jazz music to get the comedy across.   In an early scene Miles makes a bumbling escape from government police that would have made Chaplin or Keaton (Buster, not Diane) proud.  In another brilliant scene, Miles masquerades as a servant drone and hides out in Luna’s house.  Luna and her party guests are so self-absorbed that they don’t even notice the fact that he’s an imposter.   He does his best to blend into the scenery while battling a giant glob of rogue instant pudding in the kitchen or passing around a silver orb with strangely addictive properties. 

Sleeper accomplishes what some of the most effective comedies and science fiction films do – reflecting the time that they’re made while calling out the inherent fallacies in society and absurdities of everyday life.  200 years ago, Miles owned a health food store, but learns that everything that he thought was bad (such as fudge, steak or cigarettes) was actually healthy.   Although the film is clearly a product of another era, it’s interesting to note how many of the jokes are still relevant now.  We’re still a generation of self-obsessed, style-conscious consumers, obsessed about retaining our electronic creature comforts while being concerned about the government’s intervention into our everyday lives. 

Woody Allen’s style has evolved in the past four decades, often adopting an increasingly introspective, darker tone in his later projects as a “serious” filmmaker.  It’s debatable whether he could (or would want to) duplicate some of the more manic aspects that made Sleeper and his earlier, “less mature” films so special.  But it’s difficult to dismiss Sleeper as merely a rough sketch or immature work.  The film retains Allen’s personal touch, but its humor is more accessible.  What’s more, it’s frequently hilarious – something that can’t always be said about his hit-and-miss contemporary comedies.  Sleeper remains one of his best films. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

November Quick Picks and Pans

Revanche (2008) Despite the title (the French word for “revenge”), writer/director Gotz Spielmann’s drama is more about quietly reflective moments than brash retaliatory acts.  In the opening shot we see ripples in a pond, serving as a metaphor for the events that will shortly follow – one thing cannot occur without creating a series of interrelated occurrences.  Tamara (Irina Potapenko) is an illegal Ukranian immigrant working in a brothel in Austria.  Alex (Johannes Krisch) is her ex-con boyfriend, who does odd jobs around the brothel.  Both dream of a better life, but they appear to be trapped in their current circumstances.  He decides to pull off one more heist by robbing a local bank, assuring her that nothing can go wrong, but it’s clear that this is a terrible idea from the start.  At this point, the story takes an unexpected turn, leading to a cruel twist of fate, in which the lives of Alex and Robert (Andreas Lust), a local policeman, will become inextricably intertwined.  All of the lead performances ring true, with acting that’s natural and unforced.  The plot does not follow a predictable arc, but unfolds at a deliberate pace, tracing Alex and Robert’s feelings of intense guilt.  Spielmann takes the time to weave in a subplot about Alex’s renewed relationship with his estranged grandfather, without derailing the central story.  It’s a sad, but captivating character study of damaged individuals wallowing in pain that they cannot mitigate. 

Rating: **** ½.  Available on DVD and Blu-ray.   

Summer Wars (2009) This imaginative and charming anime film from director Mamoru Hosoda centers around Kenji, a socially awkward high school kid with a gift for solving complex math problems.  He’s more comfortable with computers than people, employed as a low-level monitor for Oz – a ubiquitous virtual environment for work and play, but he soon discovers that his online and physical lives are about to merge.  Meanwhile, in the real world, he agrees to accompany his classmate Natsuki on a trip to the country for a family reunion, to celebrate her great grandmother’s 90th birthday.  He gets more than he’s bargained for, however, when he realizes that she wants him to pose as her fiancé.  In the virtual world, things go from bad to worse when a malicious AI program infiltrates Oz.  The sentient program steals millions of accounts around the world, bringing global commerce to a standstill, and cutting off vital support functions in many governments – and he’s the prime suspect.  The trailer and Netflix description are somewhat misleading.  Although the virtual environment element is certainly prevalent, it’s as much a coming-of-age/family drama as it is a near-future cyberspace film.  Kenji and Natsuki grapple with everyday themes of life, death, love and responsibility – while the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Zebraman (2004) From prolific and versatile director Takashi Miike comes a new kind of superhero story.  Third-grade teacher Shinichi’s (Shô Aikawa) life sucks.  None of his students or school administrators respect him, and his home life isn’t any better.  His wife is cheating on him, his teenage daughter is dating a sociopathic older man, and his son is constantly tormented by fellow classmates because of Shinichi’s less than stellar reputation as a teacher.  Shinichi’s primary solace is dressing up as the title character from a 1978 TV show that only lasted seven episodes due to low ratings.  He finds an ally in a new student in his class, Shinpei, who’s also an ardent Zebraman enthusiast.  He gradually finds himself spending more time with the boy and his single mother, compared to his actual family.  Since this is nominally a superhero movie, there’s a nemesis that Zebraman must face.  An alien invasion is looming on the horizon, with greenish glob-like creatures that hijack the bodies of humans to do their bidding. 

Zebraman suffers from some pacing issues, dragging a bit in the middle.  Also, the relationship between Shinichi and Shinpei’s mom is never fully explored (Is it just platonic or something more?  A dream sequence with her standing beside him as his busty sidekick suggests otherwise.).  Miike’s tongue is firmly planted in his cheek, but the film has respect for its characters, particularly Shinichi, who comes across as more than just a likable goof.  When he finally rises to the challenge of his alter ego, he’s grown substantially.  If you want to be a paragon for others, you need to believe in yourself first.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD.

The House With Laughing Windows (1976) This giallo film from director Pupi Avati unfolds slowly (and I mean slowly), but leads to a satisfying conclusion.  Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) arrives in a small town to restore a painting in the cathedral, created by a tortured artist, Buono Legnani (seen in flashbacks), with a grim and shadowy past.  Legnani’s favorite subject matter was death and dying, and there’s a cover-up in the town about the artist’s inspirations.  Truth be told, most of the lugubrious paintings are fairly mediocre (they probably wouldn’t be worthy of hanging in Rod Serling’s Night Gallery), but they serve the purpose of building a sense of mystery.  When Stefano’s friend dies before he can tell him what’s going on, he decides to investigate what looks to be a cover-up by the townspeople.  The House With Laughing Windows starts off with an interesting premise, but gets bogged down in the details.  The film’s sloth-like pace passes for suspense, with too many scenes where absolutely nothing happens.  Faults aside, the climax and payoff at the end are actually quite good, if you can stay awake long enough. 

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Classics Revisited: Mighty Joe Young

(1949) Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack; Written by Ruth Rose; Story by Merian C. Cooper; Starring: Terry Moore, Ben Johnson and Robert Armstrong; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

What’s It About?

What’s the first movie that comes to mind when you think about a big ape?  Okay… What’s the second?  Some might recall Peter Jackson’s flawed remake or maybe even Mighty Peking Man, but for me it’s always been King Kong’s lightweight cousin, Mighty Joe Young.  This underrated fantasy film plays like a semi-sequel to the landmark 1933 film (the less said about Son of Kong, the better), with a more whimsical tone and much greater emphasis on fantasy over bloodshed.

Mighty Joe Young begins in Africa (Yes, just generic “Africa.”  I’m guessing it’s somewhere in the Congo, but it’s hard to tell with all the stock footage of species that would probably live hundreds of miles away.).  We meet a precocious young girl, Jill Young, who lives with her father on a ranch.  When the natives trudge by with a baby gorilla, what’s a girl to do but trade her father’s flashlight for the wee simian?   She names him Joe, and the rest is history.

Skip ahead 12 years, and P.T. Barnum-esque huckster Max O’Hara * (Robert Armstrong) ventures to “godless” Africa with his entourage on a quest for attractions to populate his new nightclub, and wouldn’t you know it?  He winds up in the very same spot in Africa where Jill (now played by Terry Moore) and Joe have been peacefully residing.  Joe has grown to enormous proportions, as in freakishly huge.  Not quite King Kong size, but pretty darned big.  No one stops to speculate about the fact that he’s much larger than any real life gorilla species, but then again, the filmmakers probably assumed that the audience didn’t know or care.  It’s never established what part of Africa they were in, so they presumably figured that 1940s filmgoers would buy anything at that point.

*Armstrong played the very similar Carl Denham 16 years earlier, in King Kong.  Both O’Hara and Denham were modeled after producer/showman Merian C. Cooper, often described as a larger-than-life character himself. 

Ernest B. Schoedsack was no stranger to giant simians, having co-directed King Kong with Merian C. Cooper.  Mighty Joe Young was one of his final projects.  He eyes had been seriously injured during World War II, and according to Moore was almost completely blind when he directed Mighty Joe Young.

Ray Harryhausen, working on his first feature film, predominantly created the Academy Award-winning stop motion effects in Mighty Joe Young, with some assistance by Pete Peterson.  Harryhausen’s artistry really makes Joe come alive, with believable facial expressions and distinctive mannerisms (Joe pounds the ground with his fist when he becomes enraged.).  Nominally under the supervision of Willis O’Brien, Harryhausen improved on his mentor’s work in King Kong, creating an ape with a greater range of movement and personality.  Two different sizes of Joe figures were used for long shots and close-up work: 8-inch and 13-inch. Harryhausen conveyed Joe’s feelings of despair when he’s locked in a dismal cage underneath a nightclub, through subtle changes in posture and lip movements.  Live action footage was skillfully blended with stop motion footage to create the illusion that Joe was interacting with his human co-stars.  In one of my favorite scenes, Joe has a tug-o-war with 10 wrestlers (Guess who wins?).

A strong theme of animal exploitation runs throughout Mighty Joe Young.  The animals exist solely for O’Hara’s profit.  The audience’s sympathies are squarely with Joe, as he’s taken out of his habitat and forced to perform in a gaudy jungle-themed nightclub for drunken patrons.  Jill has acquired a modicum of fame and fortune, but Joe has less than nothing.  Realizing that his spirit is broken, Jill and her cowboy pal Gregg (Ben Johnson) conspire to return him to the wild, where he belongs.  It’s perhaps a little out of character that O’Hara becomes their willing accomplice, but it seems fitting penance for his transgressions.  The fun-to-watch (orange-tinted), but heavy-handed burning orphanage sequence is little more than a contrivance, as a means to demonstrate Joe’s true nature to the pursuing policemen. 

Why It’s Still Relevant:

What makes some films classics while others are relegated to historical footnotes?  In Mighty Joe Young, it’s not the acting, story, or direction, but the lasting imagery, thanks to Harryhausen’s groundbreaking effects work.  While the effects might seem quaint by today’s standards, they represent a personal approach that just isn’t done anymore.  Like many classics, it’s a window to a world that has gone by.  The painstaking art of stop motion animation is still alive and well, thanks especially to Aardman Animations, but it’s no longer the visual effects staple it used to be, supplanted by CGI.  Harryhausen’s work in Mighty Joe Young and other films has served as an inspiration for effects masters for many years, and will probably continue to inspire future generations of artists as long as there is film.

It’s easy to spot the impact that Mighty Joe Young had on filmmakers years later.  When Joe trashes the nightclub, he inadvertently releases several lions.  While most of the lions are only interested in fleeing the area, a couple of the big cats jump on his back.  This mirrors a scene in Jurassic Park, involving a tyrannosaurus rex and two hungry velociraptors. 

Mighty Joe Young is unabashedly corny, melodramatic and culturally insensitive.  It might be a product of a simpler, arguably less enlightened time, but taken in the proper context, it still qualifies as great entertainment.  The film doesn’t carry the tragic weight of King Kong, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Like the old TV commercial goes, it’s less filling, and tastes great.  It’s a terrific choice for family film night or just for admiring an old master at the top of his form. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Once Over Twice: The Last Starfighter

(1984) Directed by Nick Castle; Written by Jonathan R. Betuel; Starring: Lance Guest, Robert Preston, Dan O'Herlihy, Catherine Mary Stewart and Barbara Bosson;
Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Rating: **** 

Ah… the 80s!  For better or worse, we’re typically a product of our formative years, trapped in an earlier (and subjectively) simpler time that dictates our preferences.  We’re stranded in a time warp, as a willing prisoner to an earlier aesthetic – sort of an existential Stockholm Syndrome.  The Last Starfighter is an example of cinematic comfort food, reminding me when my biggest concern was whether or not I had enough quarters to play my favorite video game, just before life demanded that it was time to grow up and think about loftier issues.

I would be selling The Last Starfighter short if it was just a vehicle for pondering my teen years through blurry rose-colored glasses, however.  There are more than enough 80s movies that cover this territory nicely.  The Last Starfighter marked a milestone in computer-generated effects, but compared to Tron it rarely gets its due.  According to director Nick Castle, half of the movie was a “question mark,” requiring a much larger scope of digital effects than had ever been previously attempted.  It was a gamble by forward-thinking filmmakers who decided to take the plunge into a largely untested technology where outcomes were uncertain. 

Production designer Ron Cobb previously worked with Castle on Dark Star, and did design work on such seminal films as Alien and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The decision to use digital instead of optical effects was ambitious, considering the virtually non-existent state of the art at the time.  The effects in The Last Starfighter represent some significant firsts, including the first motion blur effect and first time that a photo-realistic object (the “star car”) was displayed.  What appears on screen is a compromise between what the technology could accomplish and the demands of the production company to get the film finished in a reasonable time period.  In many cases, the filmmakers did not have the time to fully render what was technically possible.  Cobb (in the DVD commentary) stated that landscapes were the most difficult to render convincingly because it simply took too long, resulting in something that looked “like melted ice cream.”  By today’s standards, the effects are fairly primitive.  The end result is certainly not as effective as what could be achieved with optical effects, detailed models and miniature landscapes, but for the time this was truly groundbreaking stuff.  Audiences and critics didn’t realize that these were the baby steps that represented a point of no return for special effects, creating ripples that would continue to be felt years later.

The film is much more than an exercise in special effects, thanks to a healthy sense of fun.  Castle envisioned The Last Starfighter as a “musical without the music,” with a light touch that never lapses into self-importance.  What distinguishes this from most other depictions of space opera (notably the Star Wars prequels) is that it never takes itself too seriously.  The characters are played broadly, but the comic scenes that result from their interactions never seem overtly forced thanks to Jonathan Betuel’s lively screenplay.   He takes familiar elements, such as a standard space opera story, but adds a fish-out-of-water spin. 

Lance Guest plays Alex Rogan, a young guy with his head in the clouds but his feet firmly planted on the ground.  Castle commented that Guest was chosen for his all-American appearance, evocative of Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart.  It’s easy to see the parallels between Alex and George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.  Both characters dream about far off places beyond their small hometowns, but are inextricably tied to their families through duty.  Alex doesn’t have time to hang out with his friends when there’s so much work to be done around the trailer park where he resides.  Even his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) gets shortchanged, because of his daily responsibilities.  His only escape seems to be the video game “Starfighter,” which he manages to play in the few spare moments when he’s not doing something for someone else.  Alex doesn’t realize that his pastime will become his salvation, as the Starfighter game is actually an alien recruitment tool, modeling the controls of a gunstar fighting craft.  He’s the archetypal reluctant hero, looking for a way out of his everyday drudgery, but reluctant to let go and follow his dreams when the opportunity finally presents itself.  Change is a frightening concept, even when it’s the very thing we crave the most.

There’s some great supporting work from veteran actors Robert Preston and Dan O’Herlihy, as aliens Centauri and Grig, respectively.  Preston, in his final film role, plays the dodgy con man Centauri, who developed the Starfighter game to identify potential warriors for an intergalactic battle.  Naturally, profit takes precedence over scruples with Centauri’s selection process.  Castle described Preston’s character as a fast-talking “flim flam man,” patterned after a similar role in The Music Man.  O’Herlihy is virtually unrecognizable as Alex’s reptilian pilot/navigator Grig.  It would be an understatement to suggest that Alex and Grig don’t exactly see eye to at first, with Alex referring to his shipmate as a “gung ho iguana.”  Grig is ready to fight a desperate battle against unbelievable odds, while Alex just feels over his head.  O’Herlihy infused a lot of warmth into his character, endowing him with a distinctive laugh and a somewhat optimistic (but paradoxically fatalistic) outlook.  The clash of cultures between Grig and Alex is readily apparent, but Grig remains a good sport.  It’s amusing to watch the cave-dwelling Grig’s puzzled expression as Alex futilely attempts to describe a mobile home.

It’s easy to dismiss the modestly budgeted The Last Starfighter as trying to do too much with too little.  The space battles are staged on a relatively small scale.  Most of the scenes with bad guy Zur and the Kodan Armada mostly take place on a red and black bridge set, and our view of the planet Rylos is reduced to a mere handful of sets.  The augmenting of these scenes with computer-rendered effects doesn’t quite make up for the fact that we don’t see much.  If the effects are sometimes less than special, it’s tough to deny the fact that the film heralded a new age in filmmaking, paving the way (for good or ill) for the dominance of computer-generated effects.  In an era when digital effects are taken for granted and home video game imagery has surpassed anything rendered in the film, it’s difficult to adequately convey what a novel approach this was.  But what sticks in the mind long after the technical aspects are examined to death is the film’s basic entertainment value.  More than a footnote in special effects history or a quirky little descent into 80s nostalgia, The Last Starfighter is excellent Saturday matinee fare, no more and no less.  Who could ask for more?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Stranglers of Bombay

(1959) Directed by Terence Fisher; Written by David Zelag Goodman; Starring: Guy Rolfe, Allan Cuthbertson, Andrew Cruickshank and George Pastell

Available on DVD

Rating: ***

It’s time for some good old-fashioned xenophobia, Hammer style!  I’m almost ashamed to admit that I enjoyed The Stranglers of Bombay as much as I did, considering that the sum isn’t as great as the parts, but in the final analysis the good manages to outweigh the bad.   The film qualifies as a guilty pleasure, thanks to some compelling scenes with the eponymous bad guys that rescue the audience from boredom.

The Stranglers of Bombay was “Presented in StrangloScope!” (whatever the hell that was), and posters proclaimed, “This is True!  This is real!  This actually happened!” With hyperbole like that, how can you go wrong?  According to screenwriter David Z. Goodman, the script was written in two weeks, and based very loosely on true events and fictionalized accounts like Gunga Din.  The film is set in 19th century colonial India.  When thousands of people in surrounding villages go missing and commerce is disrupted, it’s up to the East India Company to investigate the cause.

George Pastell didn’t get top billing, but he should have for his unhinged performance as the sadistic Thuggee leader known only as the High Priest of Kali.  Pastell has relatively little screen time, but he steals the show whenever he appears.  Let’s face it, most of the other performers are fairly stiff, but he puts extra effort in his role, providing the movie’s real raison d'être.  He compels his Kali-worshipping flock to use their “sacred cloth” to strangle people in the name of their god.  People (including their own) who get in the way of their mission are maimed and killed in a variety of awful ways.  Most of the more gruesome mutilations occur off-screen, but there’s still a fair amount of bloodshed depicted, especially for the time.  You might notice that the High Priest of Kali has an uncanny resemblance to another fictitious Thuggee leader, depicted 25 years later in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.   Coincidence?  I think not.

 A descendent of the High Priest of Kali, perhaps?

Most of the East India Company officers are either incredibly obstinate or profoundly obtuse.  I prefer the latter explanation.  Captain Lewis (Guy Rolfe) is only marginally smarter than his comrades, being the first to suspect that something’s up.  Unfortunately, he loses IQ points for setting out on his own to discover the secrets of the missing villagers.  Lewis tries to find out what’s going on from the locals, but they stay tight lipped on the subject.  It slowly (and by slowly, I mean by the end of the film) dawns on his fellow officers that there might be a kernel of truth to his suspicions.

Goodman’s script has obvious pacing problems (acknowledged by the screenwriter in the DVD commentary), although to be fair to the filmmakers, at least some of this could probably be chalked off to the low budget.  The film seems to follow the usual Hammer formula, which involves hooking you in with a captivating opening scene to whet your appetite, only to be followed by a series of overly talky scenes.  A scene with a mongoose fighting a cobra wasn’t in the original script, but added by director Terence Fisher, presumably to add some impact to a script that sagged in the middle.  Thankfully, The Stranglers of Bombay finishes reasonably strong, concluding with some of the action you were promised in the beginning.  It’s an uneven movie, but there’s more than enough to make it a worthwhile viewing experience. 

The Stranglers of Bombay has never been particularly well regarded among the other films in the Hammer roster, which might be a bit unfair, but also fitting.  No amount of rationalization about the film’s deficits can ignore the rampant ethnocentrism going on here.  The only respectable Indians are servants or in otherwise lowly roles.  Anyone in a prominent role can’t be trusted.   It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the British officers eventually come to their senses, saving the poor, ignorant, superstitious natives from themselves.  Admittedly, this condescending attitude is a bit hard to take, but viewed in its proper context The Stranglers of Bombay is good for some B-movie thrills.  Recommended with reservations.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay

(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.

Rating: ***½

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.