Witty, playful, romantic, tragic, Park Chan-wook’s “I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK” is a whole chocolate box of emotions in a highly decorative but absolutely characteristic wrapping. Offbeat love story between two young inmates of a loony bin — a woman who thinks she’s a cyborg and a man with kleptomania — is way too long but could only come from the director of “Old Boy” and (especially) “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.” Essentially a divertissement after his so-called “revenge trilogy,” Park’s movie will be a tough sell beyond fests but further nudges him toward the top ranks of world-class auteurs.
Released in South Korea on Dec. 7, in a sizable 72 prints, pic had a brief run and drew only a modest 737,000 admissions, despite the presence of 24-year-old Asian pop idol Jeong Ji-hun, aka Rain, in his first bigscreen role. But pic is more for film buffs than teenyboppers and, despite its originality, even the former may feel the material is overstretched at 107 minutes.
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Things get off to a strong start with a typically highly designed credits sequence in which the names appear on everything from duct tape to electronic equipment, as Yeong-gun (Lim Su-jeong) is shown slowly going nuts in a “Metropolis”-like factory workshop. Hearing voices in her head and thinking she’s a cyborg, she hooks herself up to an electrical outlet and passes out.
Waking up in an asylum under the care of female doc Choi Seul-gi (Choi Heui-jin), she talks only to mechanical objects like vending machines and clocks, and refuses all food because cyborgs don’t eat food. Instead, she supposedly “recharges” herself by licking electric batteries, leaving fellow inmate, corpulent Gop-dan (Park Jun-myeon), free to eat her meals as well.
Also in the asylum is serial, “antisocial” offender Il-sun (Jeong), in for his fifth spell in four years. Whereas Yeong-gun is a classic mythomane who creates fantasies to fill her memory gaps, Il-sun is a born klepto who can’t stop stealing. As Il-sun now “steals” fantasies to try to enter Yeong-gun’s world and get her to start eating again, the two develop a strange kind of mutually protective love.
Pic is built from a large number of incidents and includes many of the other inmates, from a girl who thinks she’s a Swiss yodeler (Ju Heui) to a paranoid middle-aged guy (Kim Chun-gi). Flashbacks also limn Yeong-gun’s weird family life and some of Il-sun’s background prior to the asylum.
Despite its highly stylized look (largely filmed in a studio in Busan), with the pastel-colored asylum and slick f/x in fantasy sequences, the film could be performed equally well as a fringe theater piece on a single stage with minimal props. Its message is, in fact, very simple — the need for love in a crazy, regulated world — and Park and fellow scripter Jeong Seo-gyeong simply replay it as a theme and variations throughout the movie.
As in “Lady Vengeance,” music plays an important part, and composers Hong Dae-seong and Hong Yu-jin are always ready to underline the dance-like antics of the asylum and inmates by slipping into 3/4 time.
Wide-eyed, waiflike Lim (“The Tale of Two Sisters”) and boyish-looking Jeong don’t so much give performances as act like marionettes. The rest of the cast fills in the larger emotions, slightly recalling the prison scenes in “Lady Vengeance.”
Effects work is fine, most exhilarating in a yodeling number in which Yeong-gun is flown in her bed by a giant insect to the Swiss Alps, and a couple of splatter sequences in which she turns into a human machine gun against her “jailers.”
Film is the first Korean production to use the Viper FilmStream Camera system (employed on “Miami Vice”), and transfer from HD to 35mm is generally good, with just a general softness to the image and occasional traces of color refraction.