I’m a Cyborg, but That’s Okay:

Chan-wook Park Gets Weird

So I watched another Chan-wook Park movie.

You may have noticed, but I have watched quite a number of his films of late. Each and every one of them was wildly impressive. And I was left with only a few gaps in his filmography I needed to fill. One of those gaps was 2006′s I’m a Cyborg, but That’s Okay. This movie stars Rain, a big time Korean star, some of whose roots are in dance and pop music and stuff. I wanted to mention this, because I completely missed one of the dynamics at play in Lady Vengeance – the lead star’s strange nice persona was a play on the actor’s public persona. She was famous for being incredibly kind, and Chan-wook Park describes that subversion as being a key feature of the film he suspected would be lost on non-Korean audiences.

Like every Chan-wook Park movie I’ve seen so far this one sees the director adopting a different directorial style to further the thematic and tonal goals of his movie. Actually “style” is a poor choice of words, because the trappings of Park’s personal style stay pretty consistent from film to film, with the exception of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. His films all tend to have creative and complex digital transitions and some clever, David Fincher-esque digital camerawork. This sort of camerawork is carefully utilized and never creates the sense of disconnect it can in lesser hands. His movies also tend to have the sort of harsh and brutal flairs of violence that would make Nicolas Winding Refn happy. They also tend towards a fairly bleak and callous tone. While his past films saw him adopting the techniques of specific directors or artistic styles or movements, I’m a Cyborg, but That’s Okay sees him adopting the visual language of a whole genre. And not a particularly respected genre at that. In I’m a Cyborg, but That’s Okay, Chan-wook Park imitates and manipulates the visual language of romantic comedies for nefarious ends.

This might not be immediately apparent to everyone but romantic comedies do indeed come with their own visual modus operandi. By their very nature rom-coms are all about the illusion of drama. There might be some surface drama, but every other step the film takes is designed to undermine the effectiveness of that drama. If the film had real stakes it wouldn’t be a rom-com, it’d be a relationship dramedy or something of the sort. Rom-coms are basically the fast-food-fix equivalent to a proper movie. I don’t mean that to sound as insulting as it does, so are plenty of the movies I watch, they just have monsters and weirdness and scattered artistic intent (I’m sure I’d find at least one of these things in the odd rom-com, if I went looking). Romantic comedies’ visual language is all about reassuring the audience that everything is going to be okay. Hi-key lighting wipes out any encroaching darkness in the frame and straightforward camera angles create a sense of comfort. Light music serves as a soundtrack, and the movie never strays too far from its core premise or characters.

I’m a Cyborg, but That’s Okay mainly sticks to two of these characteristics: the hi-key lighting and the soundtrack. That hi-key lighting is actually incredibly important though. Straightforward comedies and romantic comedies are about the only genres that use this visual style. It completely undercuts drama. It has far more of an effect that you might at first think. Try to imagine an intense film noir scene lit completely brightly and with an almost casual colour palette. It just doesn’t quite work. Or, hell, imagine Chan-wook Park’s most popular film, Oldboy, lit like, I don’t know, The Wedding Planner or something. (That’s a thing, right?) There’s just something inherently undramatic about the whole idea. The simple addition of hi-key lighting and rom-com style music completely transforms the surface of I’m a Cyborg, but That’s Okay.

Which might seem like a weird choice. Why would a director as brutal and dramatic as Chan-wook Park choose to cast aside potential drama like this?

To understand the intent behind this choice we have to talk about the content Chan-wook Park is packaging beneath this rom-com veneer. The substance is brilliantly affected and altered by the tangible choices of style. The movie is about Young-goon, a young woman suffering from schizophrenia. The movie opens with her doing menial factory work. Except instead of doing the proper work she was hired for she’s building a radio, which stays with her throughout the movie. This scene is intercut with the opening credits, which are digitally scribed on various objects in the scene like wires, tape, screws, and more. This is another stylistic choice that undercuts the drama; it’s a childish, almost silly visual, which is a careful choice. Part way through that process she cuts her wrist, sticks the bare end of a wire in the cut, tapes it to her wrist, and sticks the plug end into the wall. The lights flicker and she twitches. The electric shock knocks her off her feet and she gets violently knocked unconscious. The movie’s titles appear on her glowing toes as she lies prone on the factory floor.

Young-goon is then taken to a mental institution. She begins slowly starving to death, as she refuses to eat anything. She just tries to “recharge” by licking batteries. This is, perhaps obviously, because Young-goon believes she’s a cyborg. Her family has a history of mental illness. Her grandmother believed she was a mouse and only ate radish for a very long time until she was taken away. It was that day that Young-goon discovered she was a cyborg. She still routinely wears her grandmother’s dentures, as she believes they are necessary for her to communicate to machines. This leads me to an unimportant question I’d like to pose to anyone who has seen the film – maybe I missed something, but how the hell is Young-goon still alive by the time the movie starts? If she started to believe when she was a child that, as a cyborg, food would ruin her internal mechanisms, how did she last, I’d say at least five years or so, without eating? This potential wrinkle doesn’t really affect my appreciation of the movie at all, I’m just genuinely curious if there was some sort of textual explanation I missed for that.

So Young-goon told her mother about her belief from the beginning, and her mother, after realizing there need not be any surface signs of this belief, made Young-goon promise to keep it a secret. Her mother doesn’t even tell the hospital she’s taken to, after what seems like a suicide attempt. Where the romantic element of this romantic comedy kicks in is pretty fascinating. She meets Il-soon, played by the extraordinarily dainty Rain. Il-soon is a schizophrenic whose illness manifests itself in anti-social behaviour and high-concept kleptomania. Il-soon believes he can steal character traits and talents from people. He steals one woman’s appetite, a man’s ping-pong skills, a man’s apologetic nature, a woman’s singing voice, and more. Some of the things he steals are basically the illnesses fellow patients are suffering from, but he always returns them eventually. This doesn’t seem to be from any sort of good-nature tendency; he mainly gets tired or frustrated with these traits. For instance he finds the ping-pong talent inspires a rather insipid itch on his butt.

Il-soon and Young-goon start to get close. A big part of the plot sees Young-goon searching for her purpose in life, and she believes that she might need to see her grandmother to find it. See her grandmother and return her dentures to her. The only way she thinks she can do this is by killing the “white coats” who took her grandmother away and now keep her in the hospital. She has to obey the robot laws to do this. The laws are as follows – No Being Sad, No Restlessness, No Hesitating About Anything, No Useless Daydreaming, No Feeling Guilty, No Thankfulness, and most importantly No Sympathy. But Young-goon can’t help it, she feels sympathetic towards the doctors. So she gets Il-soon to steal her sympathy. This means she’s up for killing the doctors, but Il-soon starts to sympathize with the fact that Young-goon is still starving to death, and he tries to help her. This is the catalyst for their “romance.”

Not exactly standard rom-com fare at first glance, but there’s even more to it than that.

As the movie goes on it gets aggressively surreal and unusual. Every single moment a character onscreen has a hallucination or distorted view of reality, the movie’s reality shifts to represent it. Characters appear on Swiss Alps, start to fly, transform into robots and shoot people, shrink away into nothing, wander around with giant elastic bands strapped to their waist, and get grabbed by lady bugs and flown away. It’s all presented, through some clever camera work and the ever-present (okay, not in all the flashbacks) hi-key lighting, in a way that keeps the incredibly surrealistic delusions feeling uncomfortably upbeat. The camera work stays undramatic and frequently puts literal distance between the audience and the more upsetting fantasies.  When we watch a ton of orderlies and doctors get slaughtered, it’s either from a distance or up close to admire the shadow-less lighting.

Admire this paragraph from Wikipedia: Tarun hypothesized that Cyborg‘s relatively poor box office performance was due to its genre-busting: “The film has a slower pace than the director’s previous works and it strikes a strange hybrid tone where it is far too cute to be like his dark revenge flicks, but it’s a bit too dark and odd to be a cute romantic date film. Some viewers may simply find that too jarring a blend.” In fact, Chris Tilly of IGN condemned it for this exact reason: “Scenes veer violently from comedy to violence to tragedy, amusing and dumfounding in equally [sic] measure…. The result is a confusing mess of a movie that lacks the marvellously sharp structure and cohesion of his previous efforts.”

These quotes kind of miss the exercise that Chan-wook Park is getting up to in this movie, though they start to dance around it. They’re picking up on the tangible details without honing in on the intent or proper effect.

And that’s because hiding under this rom-com packaging is one of Chan-wook Park’s most experimental efforts yet.

See the secret is I’m a Cyborg, but That’s Okay is actually exactly as dark as Chan-wook Park’s other works. If you strip away the “quirky” presentation, I’m a Cyborg, but That’s Okay is about two schizophrenics developing an obsessive and co-dependent relationship. Il-soon is continually responsible for manipulating and tricking Young-goon so she stays alive. If it weren’t for his complex cons and last minute tricks, Young-goon would’ve died at least twice in the course of the movie. The kicker is that Il-soon only does these things because he’s believed he’s stolen Young-goon’s sympathy. There’s no hint that his actions stem from anything other than his mental illness. It only gets darker the more you examine it too. Il-soon believes himself to be anonymous and worthless. Young-goon grew up spending a lot of time with her incredibly deluded grandmother, and the rest of her time with a criminally negligent mother who refused to acknowledge her daughter’s mental illness. Young-goon isn’t even remotely cured by the end of the movie. It could be argued that Il-soon maybe shows some personal growth, but Young-goon goes from wanting to kill all her doctors to wanting to destroy the world.

The movie is even incredibly violent at times. R-rated kind of violent. Sure, these are hallucinations, but they’re representative of the inner goals of the “sympathetic” schizophrenic protagonist. It’s a grim movie when you examine it, and sticking the cinematic language of a romantic comedy on top of it has a very specific and important effect. There’s a violent disconnect between the content and the presentation, which is “jarring”, but deliberately so. The disconnect between the substance and the surface lends the film a schizophrenic feel. The movie shows you things that make you feel one way, but tells you they’re happy and funny. It’s like Norman Rockwell painting a picture of a concentration camp in his signature style. Your brain basically goes “what the fuck am I looking at here” and it throws you off. Which definitely means the effect is simultaneously both wildly effective and alienating. It makes I’m a Cyborg, but That’s Okay Chan-wook Park’s least accessible film, despite the fact that it sorta feels like it should be his MOST accessible.

Basically Chan-wook Park managed to take the cinematic language of one of the least interesting genres ever and elevate it to the realm of artistic experimentation.

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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  1. Very good article, Harry. Maybe your best yet on Park. I’m waiting for what you’ll have to say about JSA and Thirst (although I honestly don’t remember anything about Thirst).

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