Saturday, May 07, 2011

I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK


Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 6/4/09.


After completing the Vengeance trilogy of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Chan-wook Park became the leading director in South Korea. The trilogy showed an extreme, violent look into the world of vengeance as it attracted the attention of the international cinema circuit and filmmakers all over the world. Needing a break from his dark, violent films, Park decided to shift gears into something more light hearted in a romantic comedy entitled Ssaibogeujiman Gwaenchanha (I'm a Cyborg but That's OK).

Directed by Chan-wook Park with a script co-written with Seo-kyeong Jeong, Ssaibogeujiman Gwaenchanha tells the story of a young woman who lives in a mental institution as she believes she is a cyborg. At the hospital, she befriends a young schizophrenic, anti-social young man as they team up in hopes to escape the hospital while she wants to take revenge on the people who hospitalized her mentally-ill grandmother. A change of pace for Park, the film shows Park taking on new risks as he delves into a genre that he's not known for. Starring Im Su-jeong, Rain, Choi Hie-jin, Lee Yong-nyeo, Yu Ho-jeong, and Kim Byeong-ok. Ssaibogeujiman Gwaenchanha is a weird, enchanting, and visually-striking film from Chan-wook Park.

Cha Young-goon (Im Su-jeong) believes that she is a cyborg where an incident involving a moment where she cuts her wrists and put wires into her veins. After plugging the electronic wires in, she is taken to a mental hospital by her mother (Lee Yong-nyeo). Rarely talking to anyone except a vending machine and lights in the ceiling, Young-goon also refuses to eat as a fat patient would often eat her lunch. At the same hospital is an anti-social, schizophrenic young man named Park Il-sun (Rain) who likes to steal things and where masks. Convinced he can take souls from other people, he pretends to be other people including walking backwards, scratching his own butt, and other things. Yet, he remains haunted by the abandonment of his mother (Yu Ho-jeong) whose picture he carries.

When Young-goon notices Il-sun's antics, she hopes to have her soul taken from Il-sun but it doesn't work when he stole her grandmother's dentures to the point that she attacks him during a group therapy session. Yet, it became clear that Young-goon is becoming ill as she has fantasies of killing the hospital staff for taking away her mentally-ill grandmother. With help from Il-sun's stealing tactics to take away things from other people's bodies, she believes she has no sympathy. Yet, her condition deteriorates as she refuses to eat. With Il-sun becoming more troubled wearing masks and believes he is shrinking into a dot. With Young-goon's health failing, it's Il-sun and fellow patients that decide to help her out. Il-sun's determination along with Young-goon to confront her grandmother's illness as well as who she is.

The film is essentially a love story between two mentally-damaged individuals who both hide through masks or the belief that they're something else. What Chan-wook Park and co-writer Seo-kyeong Jeong create is simply a film that is definitely unconventional and whimsical. At the same time, they explore the psychological state of mind in both the characters of Young-goon and Il-sun. Young-goon is obviously damaged by her overbearing mother as well as a close connection to her own grandmother. Il-sun remains haunted by his own mother's abandonment where he seems to can't let go of things that forces him to believe he can take people's souls. The film's plot is simple but the approach in the story and direction is anything but.

Instead, Park goes for something that is very weird where it's a mixture of French New Wave in terms of voice-over narrations, the whimsical nature of films like Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Michel Gondry, and some of the fantasy-driven violence of Stanley Kubrick. While the film does start out slow in its first act involving doctors and such, it gets moving once the Young-goon and Il-sun character starts to interact each other. Thus, the film becomes this weird, dreamy, quirky kind of romantic comedy which includes a violent sequence where Young-goon shoots bullets from her fingers and ammunition coming out of her mouth. Park's striking compositions and staging in its presentation really shows a director trying new tricks and such. Even in some of the visual effects driven shots that are definitely pure fantasy as the film is a mixture of both fantasy and reality. While it may not have the sheer, visual arresting images or sharp camera work of his Vengeance trilogy. Park creates a film that is still exciting and entertaining to watch.

Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung creates some amazing shots that is filled with bright colors from the interiors of the hospital in its whiteness to the colorful, dream-like shots of the fantasy sequences in the grass and landscapes. Chung's work is definitely striking from the sepia-awash shots of the boiler room scenes with dark, yellowish colors as it plays to a creepy yet entrancing look for the film. Editors Jae-beom Kim and Sang-beom Kim do some fine work with the editing despite a sluggish start in the first half. Filled with jump-cuts, dissolves, split-screen shots, and fade-outs, it's filled with lots of style while moves at a energetic pace for the film's second and third act.

Visual effects supervisor Jeon-hyeong Lee does some amazing work with the visual effects filled with things like a look into Young-goon's so-called robotic body, the fantasy sequences, and even the scenes where Young-goon becomes a violent cyborg. Music composer Yeong-wook Jo does great work with the film's orchestral-driven music that range from suspenseful to whimsical in its scenes. Filled with an array of arrangements that is playful but also dark, it's score is truly one of the film's technical highlights.

The cast is truly phenomenal with several memorable characters that are in the film whether it's a man walking backwards who often apologizes for things he believes he did wrong, a fat woman who likes to eat people's food and wear unmatched socks, a young woman who likes to look in the mirror and sing songs, and a man who is obsessed with winning a ping-pong match. Small roles from Byeong-ok Kim as a judge who sentenced Il-sun to a hospital, Dal-su Oh as a doctor in the film's early scenes, and Hie-jin Choi as a more sympathetic doctor are memorable. Even the small roles of Ho-jeong Yu and Young-nyeo Lee as the respective mothers of Il-sun and Young-goon are memorable though Yu is only shown as a picture.

In his acting debut, Korean pop singer Rain gives a phenomenal performance as a young man who likes to wear masks, win at ping-pong games, and steal the soul of his fellow friends at the hospital. Rain's performance is truly marvelous as he shows a great physicality in movement while proving to be a real solid actor when not speaking and such. One would think a pop star wouldn't give a performance like this but Rain, like a few notable pop artists, manages to make an impression. Even more so than his small role in the Wachowski brothers film version of Speed Racer. Im Su-jeong is great as Young-goon, a young woman who believes she's a cyborg as she has a quirkiness and charm that is intoxicating to watch. When her character deteriorates and we see the dark things about her, it's a performance that is truly mesmerizing. Su-jeong and Rain both have great chemistry as they really shine in their performances together.

When the film was released in late December 2006, it was filled with lots of anticipation considering the attention Park received for his Vengeance trilogy. The reaction however, was mixed as box office performances were disappointing in comparison to his films from the trilogy. While it would win an award at the Berlin Film Festival months later as well as some praise for Rain's performance. It didn't get the attention that his Vengeance trilogy received while not achieving a theatrical release in the U.S. despite Park's cult following in the country.

While it may not have the brilliant technical work or intense storylines of his Vengeance trilogy, Ssaibogeujiman Gwaenchanha is still an excellent film from Chan-wook Park. Thanks to the performances of Im Su-jeong and Rain, it's a film that fans of films by Michel Gondry or Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie can enjoy for its quirkiness. Fans of Park will be glad to see the director doing something different while showing a side of himself that is truly offbeat. In the end, though it's not one of Park's great films, Ssaibogeujiman Gwaenchanha is still a whimsical, entertaining romantic-comedy from Chan-wook Park.

Chan-wook Park Films: (The Moon Is... The Sun's Dream) - (Trio) - (Judgement) - JSA: Joint Security Area - Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance - (If You Were Me-Never Ending Peace and Love) - Oldboy - Three... Extremes-Cut - Sympathy for Lady Vengeance - Thirst - (Night Fishing) - Stoker - The Handmaiden

(C) thevoid99 2011

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