I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (싸이보그지만 괜찮아) is perhaps best described as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) meets Amelie (2001) due to the whimsical portrayal of romance set within the confines of a mental institution. While these two features may initially seem an unnatural pairing, the abstract representation of the tenderness and innocence of love makes I’m a Cyborg an incredible inventive and poignant addition to the romance genre.
The film also marks a rather remarkable thematic departure for director Park Chan-wook (박찬욱) whose previous works have tended to focus on the nature of violence and revenge, yet his fundamental creative flair and ingenuity portray the magical nature of love of those with an alternative perception of reality.
Cha Young-goon (Im Soo-jeong (임수정) believes herself to be a cyborg, so much so that she attempts to recharge herself at her factory workplace by slitting her wrist and inserting electronic wiring within the wound. Mistaken for a suicide attempt, Young-goon is taken to a mental institution to receive treatment and meets a variety of eclectic and comical characters including Park Il-soon (Jung Ji-hoon/Rain (정지훈/비). Il-soon believes he has the ability to steal personal attributes of his fellow patients, and his perceived lack of identity leads him to wear a rabbit mask before ultimately fading into nothingness. Upon learning of Il-soon’s abilities, Young-goon begs him to steal her ‘sympathy’ so that she can exact revenge on ‘the white coats’ who forcibly took her Grandmother away. Il-soon becomes fascinated with Young-goon and her psychoses, and the two form an unlikely bond that help each other more deeply than any psychiatrist could ever hope for.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK is a wonderfully compelling romantic story with incredible visual flair from co-writer/director Park Chan-wook. The composition and colour within each frame is often majestic, such as the greens and reds within the radio factory in which Young-goon is employed that clearly contribute to her belief she’s a cyborg. Contrasted with the stark white within the institution and the ‘dome’ in which patients attempt to verbalise their symptoms, I’m a Cyborg continually conveys whimsy and poignancy in equal measure. This also applies to the character-driven script co-written with Jeong Seo-kyeong (정서경), which foregoes representing mentally ill patients as silly entertainment and instead endeavours to provide each character with history, depth, and empathy. This seemingly rare feature of cinema constructs an environment in which the central protagonists are not conveyed as beyond help, but as members of a social group in which their tragedy and comedy are shared with each other and forges relationships. Young-goon, for example, is from a family with a history of mental illness which included her Grandmother who believed she was a mouse and only ate radishes. When her Grandmother is forcibly sectioned, Young-goon desperately holds on to her memory by wearing her dentures and swearing revenge with her cyborg body. This mixture of empathy and comedy makes I’m a Cyborg one of the most unique, interesting and romantic character studies in many years.
At the heart of I’m a Cyborg is the relationships between Young-goon and Il-soon, and the development of their love is represented organically and with passion. Im Soo-jeong is convincing and sympathetic as girl-turned-cyborg Young-goon, conveying her detachment from reality with skill and conviction, and is by far the most engaging protagonist within the film. Similarly Jung Ji-hoon/Rain is charismatic as love interest Il-soon, and while he often does not convey his anti-social behaviour he still functions well as a charming rogue whose interest in Young-goon blossoms with time. The supporting characters also offer interesting interludes that add to the central concept, as Il-soon ‘steals’ personality traits that help bring him closer to Young-goon and provide him with an identity. However, neither leading actor is given a ‘defining moment’ in which their acting prowess can be revealed – such as can be found within One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Girl, Interrupted and Amelie – which ultimately limits their performance and the character depth which is continually alluded to is never fully realised. As such, the gentle narrative flow is never disrupted to a degree whereby drama ensues and hurdles must be overcome, leaving I’m a Cyborg as a pleasantly mellow offering, without much conflict or resolution.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK is a rare and unique treat, portraying mentally ill patients not as figures of ridicule but of poignancy, comedy, and of love. Director Park Chan-wook employs a whimsical and creative style that is engaging and entertaining, emphasizing his ability produce tender and heartfelt romance within the context of fantasy. While the narrative shies away from dramatic character defining events, the gently-paced and thoughtful character construction, accompanied with the surrealism of their perception of reality, is both charming and heartwarming.