Saturday, April 20, 2013

I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (2006)

Mental illness in film is tricky to represent correctly. Too often it's used as a plot device, or as a "quirky" character trait, not properly representing the struggle and pain people afflicted with these conditions go through. According to movieland, various metal illnesses ranging from depression, schizophrenia, OCD, bipolar disorder, Aspergers, post-traumatic stress disorder, and many more usually result in characters looking vacant, reciting convoluted but profound statements, and maybe trying to kill themselves before finding the light at the end of the tunnel, fixing their problems forever thanks to clean living and a positive outlook. This is done out of narrative necessity, as real mental illness is far more complex then that, and isn't something to can be so easily fixed in an hour and a half.

The characters in Park Chan-wook's I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK certainly aren't a particularly accurate portrayal of what I imagine most people suffering from real mental illnesses are really like. They are basically an amped up version of the same asylum archetypes we've been seeing since One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, and it's clear that the movie itself isn't too concerned with realism in the first place. The movie is surreal, hyper stylized, and not afraid to bend and break the walls between reality and fantasy when appropriate. Our main character literally thinks she's a cyborg, the romantic lead steals people's emotions, and our protagonist's central relationship is with her pickled radish eating grandmother who thinks she's a mouse. This isn't too serious of an examination. And yet, despite it's silliness and it's fantastical nature, I think it gets more to the heart of a lot of mental illness much more successfully then so many serious movies like Rain Man or Silver Linings Playbook. The characters in it don't reflect real life, sure, but so many of the emotions these characters are put through seem more true to life then your typical Hollywood representation.

The film follows Cha Young-goon (Im Soo-jung), a young woman who thinks she is actually a cyborg, who is institutionalized after cutting herself and attaching a live wire to her in an attempt to charge her battery. The movie doesn't really have an overlying plot, instead focusing on different character moments and tiny little stories that build into a larger whole, where we understand why Young-goon feels that she is a cyborg as well as see the bonds she creates with the other patients. Initially she refuses to talk to anybody but the vending machines, but as the movie continues she develops a friendship of sorts with Park Il-soon (K-Pop star Rain), a schizophrenic kleptomaniac who can actually steal other people's emotions. When she asks him to steal her sympathy so she can carry out her mission of killing all the orderlies, he begins to understand her and the two develop a romantic relationship.

Appropriately, the movie feels somewhat bipolar in it's construction. Though it's visuals are frantic and kinetic, it's development of it's characters and story is far more leisurely. This is a movie glad to give five minutes of screen time to an extended fantasy of the protagonist growing guns from her fingers and killing everybody. Sometimes it goes on weird tangents that don't really connect to things. It's at times a very disorienting film, zipping in and out of reality at ease, sometimes not telling the audience where one ends and another begins.

In another movie, these developments would feel offcenter and unbalanced, but in this context I think that tone works in the film's favor. It helps the audience get inside the patient's heads, so to speak, and makes the moments of clarity in the film feel so much more earned. I don't want to say that this movie is made up of a string of non sequiturs because that's doing director Park Chan-wook (the man behind the fantastic Oldboy) a great disservice. It's off-kilter, but just enough so that it's still able to stand on it's own. It's emotionally consistent, if not externally.

The emotions feel so strong in a large part due to the actors, who bring a lot out of this movie. Again, we are in pure "movie crazy" here, and the actors spend a lot of time screaming crazylike and looking frazzled and everything you'd expect if you told a 20 year old straight out of Circle in the Square to "act crazy." But underneath that there's a lot of truth, especially Im Soo-jung's performance. The whole movie is already precarious as it is, and if we didn't believe her performance or thought that Young-goon felt fake, the whole thing would fall apart. But instead her performance is funny, affecting, and heartbreaking in equal measures. The moment where she says goodbye to her grandmother in an elaborate dream sequence works so well because we've seen what she's gone through, and Soon-jung brings out all these feelings into an impressive crescendo. Rain also does a good job, allowing Young-goon to bounce off of him. He's a guiding force for Young-goon, but he's not overbearing or forceful, instead he reacts to what she's doing and subtly helps her. It's nice to watch play out on screen.

The final scene of the movie sums up the film's tone as a whole pretty well. Convinced that she's actually a bomb designed to destroy the world, Young-goon goes out into a field in the middle of a rainstorm to get hit by lightning in order to get enough power to blow up. Il-soon comes with her, because he's a good boyfriend. The two set up a lightning rod out of an antennae then set up a tent for a picnic. A strong gust of wind blows the tent away and the two scramble to get all their food. The cork for the wine bottle is missing, so Il-soon puts his pinkie in the bottle to prevent water going in. We then see that Il-soon has placed the cork onto of the antennae to prevent any actual lightning. It's silly, sweet, confusing, yet makes perfect sense at the same time. I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK is proof that the line between genius and failure is very thin, cause there are so many things that could have made this not just bad, but offense to people who have to face mental illness every day. Instead it's a quirky little movie with a big fat heart. On the Wicker Scale, Christopher Lee has admitted Nic Cage into the asylum, and we all agree this is a good thing.

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