May 19, 2008

I'M A CYBORG (2006) - a lighter shade of OLDBOY

(2006, South Korea, Saibogujiman kwenchana)

After the huge international stir caused by his legendary 'Vengeance trilogy', Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance - director Chan-Wook Park has confounded expectations with this eccentric comedy set in a psychiatric hospital.

Working in a huge electronics factory, Young-goon (Su-jeong Lim) is happily talking to the overhead lights. Electrical things are her friends, because she thinks she is a cyborg. Voices talk back to her through a radio. They tell her to stick power leads into her veins to repower herself. She does. It looks like a suicide attempt, so off to hospital she goes.

She gets introduced to a circle of inmates, each with wildly different delusions, caused by pivotal events in their pasts. Il-sun (played by pop idol Rain) thinks he’s a giant rabbit who can steal anything. As Young-Goon’s mental and physical state deteriorates, can he use his skills to help her?

The narrative of the film gets completely lost for a while as the various other patients are introduced. There’s some black comedy as these characters bounce off each other, as long as you’ve memorised all their neuroses and backstories. But it's hard work when you realise that they have little bearing on the central relationship. The crux is whether Young-goon really is a cyborg or not, and we’re teased by the director that what we see is all in her mind - are there really power-up lights in her toes?

I was mindful that surreal movies about madness often indicate that we're in the mind of one of the patients - a movie premise used as far back as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920).

But the story failed to grab me until an hour in, when some spectacular scenes reminded me of classic Oldboy, rather than the early dawdling comedy, like the prison scenes in Lady Vengeance. Cyborg starts off whimsically amusing, but the long wait for the plot may turn the fans off. Similarly confusing is the ending, a distinct difference from the tight narratives of the Vengeance films.

The production design delivers a colourful and stylish asylum, with vibrant green padded cells, modern art in the gardens and very 'now' wallpaper in the canteen. I thought it was supposed to be either a hugely expensive hospital, or another inmate’s delusional take on the usual drab d├ęcor of these institutions.

This is closer to a fantasy world, especially the Willy Wonka factory where she worked. So I shouldn’t have been too troubled about the simplistic, surreal version of mental illness - where the medical research for the script seems to start and end with the completely outdated One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975).

Actress Su-jeong Lim, one of the sisters in the haunting A Tale of Two Sisters, is again quite excellent in a unique and unprecedented role. Rain helps her to carry the film, and he may be hoping to go west with future films, already appearing in the new Speed Racer.

I think the gentle pace and humour of I’m A Cyborg will appeal to a new audience who enjoy 'World Cinema' and haven’t seen the director’s earlier ultra-violent black comedies. But for his fans, this must come as a big disappointment.

I watched the Hong Kong region 3 release. But this will be on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK (from Tartan) by the end of May, under the simple title I’m A Cyborg. Non-English DVD releases are already out in France and Germany.

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