The South Korean movie I'm a Cyborg, But That's Okay is a story of romance in a mental hospital, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by way of Romeo and Juliet. Young-goon (Lim Soo-jng, A Tale of Two Sisters) believes she is a cyborg, but after the voice on the radio tells her to cut open her arm and stick wires inside, she is sent to a psychiatric facility. Mental illness runs in her family. Her grandmother believed she was a mouse.
These kinds of delusions aren't that uncommon in Young-goon
--one woman thinks she has socks that allow her to fly, a guy believes that his skin has an elastic band just like the ones in pants and this one is connected to his life force--but since her mother (Lee Young-nyeo) made her promise to keep her true self a secret, Young-goon doesn't tell anyone about being part robot. At first she keeps to herself, but she is intrigued by a boy in the hospital, a patient named Il-soon (the popstar Rain, Ninja Assassin) who wears rabbit masks and steals other people's abilities. An older man is upset with him for taking his ping-pong serve, and later he borrows another's sense of manners. There is some concern about Young-goon's health because she never eats. When Il-soon discovers that she refuses food because her machine parts will reject organic manner, he starts looking for a solution. It's hard to tell how much he believes in her fantasies, but he indulges them enough so that she can assimilate into hospital life.
I'm a Cyborg, But That's Okay was co-written and directed by Park Chan-wook, the director behind Thirst and the Vengeance Trilogy. It was actually made in 2006, a year after he made Lady Vengeance, but outside of a couple of festival dates, it never made its way to North America. Seeing it now on DVD, it's easy to see why. Though the insane world of his young lovers is vividly realized, brought to life via colorful sets and some pretty good CGI work, most of the happenings inside the asylum seem to be weird for weirdness' sake. Sure, a surreal fantasy that crosses the boundaries of reality and perception should have few limits, but that doesn't mean the odd visions should be devoid of meaning or internal logic. It's cool to see Young-goon flying on her bed while a giant ladybug hovers above her, but there's no clear symbolism, it's just random.
Most of what transpires in I'm a Cyborg, But That's Okay seems of little consequence. While certain details do become important in the character resolutions, the explanations seem like afterthoughts in a story that was otherwise adrift. The movie only starts to work as the romance between the two leads blossoms. Lim Soo-jng is oddly cute and totally committed to her madness, and while Rain sometimes looks like he's playing around more than believing in what he is doing, if it's a performance choice, it kind of fits Il-soon's personality. The boy makes conscious choices to encourage Young-goon's delusions. If he truly doubts her, it's kind of ironic, since he believes in delusions all his own. The best scene in the movie is when he goes through an elaborate pantomime to convince her that he's installed a food processor in her body. Later, when she accepts that it's working, he takes a leap and starts to accept her cyborg-nature, too. Park Chan-wook uses some excellent effects here, showing us the inner workings of Young-goon's robot body.
As the two come together, their particular psychoses start to make sense. Young-goon has adopted a mechanical personality to shield her from the frailty of human emotion and the cruelty of others; Il-soon believes he is physically shrinking and won't stop until he completely vanishes, and his fear of being inconsequential leads him to steal as a way to be noticed. His relationship with Young-goon gives his action meaning, and the things he does for her helps her to be human again. Their relationship is sweet, and while the resolution is a bit hurried in the end, it still makes sense.
I just wish the rest of I'm a Cyborg, But That's Okay had the same purposefulness. It's a colorful movie, wonderfully designed and full of neat ideas. The more Park Chan-wook gives life to the hallucinations of the mental patients, the more dazzling the film becomes. Too bad there isn't much to connect it all, nor any sense of consequence until I'm a Cyborg, But That's Okay is already 2/3 finished. The wayward nature of the first part of the movie is meant to be loose and (for lack of a better term) crazy, but the surrealism lacks any creative rigor. It's too forced and thus tedious, which is exactly the opposite of what it should have been.
I'm a Cyborg is shown as an anamorphic widescreen image. Picture quality is average. Colors are vibrant, but the resolution is patchy. The image gets hazy and jagged, particularly during scenes with lots of movement and also around faces; skin tones sometimes look jaundiced and unnatural.
A 2.0 mix of the original Korean soundtrack has some good punch to it. Music sounds nice, as do sound effects, and the dialogue comes through clearly with no distortion.
The optional English subtitles read well and are also easy to read.
A making-of featurette comes in just under 8 minutes, and it's mostly on-set footage during some of the more involved effects shots. It doesn't have any of the usual clips or talking heads.
A music video for a song called "With U" uses footage from the movie. The song is a bland approximation of modern R&B, and I assume it's performed by Rain. No info is given.
There are two trailers for the main feature, one from the original Korean release and one for the U.S. There are also trailers for other Pathfinder DVDs.
Rent It. Park Chan-wook's I'm a Cyborg, But That's Okay has some good stuff going for it, but there is a lot of nonsense to wade through to get to the quality. The story is set in an mental hospital, which the South Korean director takes as license to break the bounds of perception, but the surreal images he dreams up come off as ill-considered and contrived. Things improve markedly when the romance between the two main characters, a girl who believes she is a cyborg and the chronic thief that decides to help her, takes over the story, but by then, the film has already gone on too long to turn things around completely.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.