February 9, 2007

Berlinale Dispatch. I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK.

I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK "I wanted to make a film that my daughter could watch and take my friends to see and laugh out loud," writes Park Chan-wook in the glossy press notes for I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK. So my own daughter, Adrienne, and I thought it might be fun (even if we don't laugh out loud) to run an exchange of opposing views as our review.

David: So we were at the same screening, but somehow missed each other. When we both got home, and I mentioned that I'd seriously contemplated walking out about half an hour or so into Cyborg, you were - correct me if I'm wrong - if not shocked, very surprised. In other words, you enjoyed it a lot more than I did, which speaks for Park Chan-wook's accomplishing at least half of what he set out to do.

Let me back up a bit. I have yet to be as impressed by Park Chan-wook as a lot of people (many of them Daily readers, I'm guessing) seem to be. But to be fair, by the time I finally caught up with Oldboy, there was probably no way it could live up to its reputation. After the initial wave of hype, when the film was attacked for being, basically, the wrong kind of exploitation, its defenders dug in their heels, referencing Shakespeare, the Greek tragedies and the like, so even though I was aware that my expectations might be unreasonably high, I was still somewhat let down. The decades-long duel between the two men does have something epic about it, but it felt to me as if Park had this intriguing set-up on one end of a scale and a series of set pieces on the other, and you could sense him contriving ways to force the ends together in ways that would justify some of his most extreme imagery that, yes, he really does seem to get off on. And as for his famed style, as admirable as it is, there doesn't seem to be much in it to me that would be new to anyone who's seen even only the blips MTV anyone will run across while zapping onto something else.

The point of this diversion is simply to say that I wasn't hoping to be wowed by Cyborg, particularly since Park keeps insisting in his notes that this film is "a small island" between his revenge trilogy and his next one, Evil Live, or in "Beethoven's words, it is a film I made with my 'buttons undone.'"

But even as what was supposed to be merely an entertaining diversion, then, I still had a very hard time warming up to Cyborg. I'm glad I didn't walk out (as about two dozen others did); the mythology, or alternative reality that's conjured between the two leads does eventually take on breadth and depth, making the film's second half much better than its first.

Much of what was supposed to be "laugh out loud" funny, though, to me, simply was not. Young-goon (Lim Soo-jung) and Il-soon (Jung Ji-hoon) are in this mental institution and, as much as I realize Park is not laughing at the antics of the mentally ill, he does clearly intend for many of them to be funny. This would be very, very hard to pull off for anyone. When a "sane" person does "crazy" things and the people around him don't understand why, but we, the audience, do, that'll trip the laugh trigger. But when "crazy" people do "crazy" things, there's nothing nothing unexpected about it, nothing to catch us off guard.

For me, there was simply way, way too much of this before the real story, the budding love between Young-goon and Il-soon sets in. But you had a much better time.

Adrienne: Yep! I have to admit, the movie already won me over with its beginning credits. Though cleverly placing people's names into the actual scenery - such as onto a factory worker's name tag - can't really be called innovative anymore, it still intrigued me. If it wasn't the interweaving with the monotonous, repetitive composition of radios the women were creating and the way Lim Soo-jung stuck out from the line of them with her big eyes and her pale face, it was the sheer beauty of the Korean alphabet.

So, yes, I was quite taken aback when you mentioned you almost walked out. You know, it makes me think of something a journalist at the press conference later said. She mentioned that she herself wasn't too thrilled, but that she's sure the film reaches its target group - a younger group, she hinted.

For my part, I found the movie enthralling. Let me explain. You have this insane asylum where - nothing new here yet - each patient has their own little psychosis. There's the man who is too polite to walk forwards, another who has an infallible ping pong technique which he cannot use since it makes his right buttock itch excruciatingly, the woman who can fly using socks that generate electricity. Cute ideas, but no big deal. This is where the cyborg and the man who steals other people's character traits and abilities come in. Young-goon and Il-soon give a name to the theme that makes this movie so enchanting: "Sympathy."

Though all these patients' psychoses are so different from one another, they take each other seriously. You steal people's character traits, give me back my politeness! Those socks make you fly - I see it, too. Can I borrow them? They open up their own little worlds for their companions, share pain, anger, happiness about each other's successes. So I guess it's not only sympathy, it's empathy; maybe even more so.

And, of course, it's sympathy Young-goon teaches Il-soon, which gives him the ability him to save her and sets Cyborg moving towards its fairy-tale happier moments. The film is very much like a fairy tale, with its journeys into almost magical worlds and its themes of friendship, revenge and love.

I'm not entirely sure how to defend it from being labeled as superficial and corny, since that's not at all what it came across like to me. I think it's the characters. At the press conference, Lim Soo-jung described Young-goon as having a childish way of seeing the world. At the same time, Park Chan-wook explained the brutality in this movie resulting from the apparent necessity for it in the schizophrenic girl's mind - to be able to return a set of dentures to her grandmother. There's an innocence in both Young-goon's vulnerability and her willingness to kill that makes the film less corny and more tangible. The mix of brutal reality (and fantasy) with the growing awareness that life can hold beauty and love does it. The one makes the other legitimate.

Jung Ji-hoon seemed genuinely thrilled with this movie - his first - explaining, that next to the honor of working with Park Chan-wook, he was simply deeply touched by the characters and their beautiful love story.

My sympathies entirely. Of course, it has a lot to do with the attitude you approach the movie with. I was expecting a serious movie, so I took the characters seriously. Kind of along the lines of you finding the ridiculing of the "crazies" out of place. I agree - I didn't find myself laughing at all (well, except for when Jung Ji-hoon was yodeling - that was too funny, especially for me, having grown up in Germany). Rather than parodies, I understood each patient as a character with real problems, to be taken seriously. Turns out, this was not Park Chan-wook's intent, but that's the way I interpreted it and it worked for me.

Oh, and as for Oldboy, it was brought up at the press conference a lot. Many contrasted its slasher-quality with this love story and mentioned the commercial success of the trilogy as compared with the disappointment Korean audiences in particular felt about Cyborg. Park Chan-wook admitted he used love in the trilogy to spawn hatred. Here, however, love serves only the purpose of love, he explained. Another theme he felt was essential to the movie is one's purpose in life - Young-goon's desire to find hers drives her to believe she is a cyborg, says Chan-wook, though she regrets her lacking a user's manual. Though in retrospect I can see this theme throughout the movie, as I watched, it seemed to me more like a means for emphasizing the theme of love. All a matter of interpretation, of course.

David: And a fine one it is, too. Seriously. You've pretty much convinced me to reconsider my initial and perhaps too hasty dismissal of I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK.

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Posted by dwhudson at February 9, 2007 3:54 PM


David, I hope there's more exchanges like this to come!

I'm also relieved to discover that I'm not the only person who doens't really care much for Chan-wook Park. Still, I think he's been getting better with each film, and I have hopes for this one...

Posted by: David Lowery at February 9, 2007 4:03 PM

I've had mixed feelings about Park's work, too - though I really did genuinely like Lady Vengeance (just as I admired Oldboy more than I actually enjoyed it). But I'll hold out hopes for this one, and your exchange, David, makes me at least curious about it. Must have been particularly interesting to have the principals there to express themselves about it; so glad you were there to catch it for us.

By the way, David, when did Adrienne become 30? ;-) I'm so impressed by her writing. Oh, and yours isn't bad either.


Posted by: Craig P at February 9, 2007 6:00 PM

Is she not old enough to know "Dad's always right" yet?

I hope you grounded her for talking back like that! No Tee Vee for a week, young lady!

Posted by: Jerry Lentz at February 9, 2007 6:44 PM

Not a huge fan of Park Chan Wook either, although I can definitely find pleasure in his Fincher-esque directorial stylings. Otherwise, his films just seem to have this hollow, lifeless feeling to them. Curious if this will continue with Cyborgjiman . . .

Posted by: John Henry Pitts, III at February 9, 2007 8:24 PM

This was a fun way to do things, Dave (and I think it was smart to start doing duel reviews with your daughter on with this Park Chan-wook film and not, say, Oldboy. That would've been *SPOILERS* too weird).

Posted by: Ju-osh at February 10, 2007 8:11 AM

Ju-osh: Awwww... that's an ugly idea.

David: I have to say, I agree with your daughter on this one. Cyborg played as such an original and inspiring piece to me! Adrienne is spot on about the interactions between the different characters in the hospital. Though a bit weird in its first 15 minutes, the film is only upwards upwards upwards, as if its wearing those electric socks. The way Chan-Wooks script slowly lets us in on the love story only strenghtened the film in my view. Not pushing that storyline to early was a major strong point, I think.

Posted by: Karsten at February 10, 2007 9:48 AM