My relationship with Chan-wook Park is one defined by a lot of ups and downs. There are films where I truly appreciate what he's doing, but then there are also quite a few where I just don't give a damn. I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK [Ssa-i-bo-geu-ji-man-gwen-chan-a] is generally seen as one of Park's lesser films, yet the first time I watched it I ended up liking it a lot. It has been a while since that first viewing though, so I was eager to find out how well it had held up over time.
Chan-wook Park is one, if not the most acknowledged South-Korean director in modern cinema. He earned international recognition and gained considerable popularity with his Vengeance trilogy, though personally I wasn't too impressed. There is a certain edge to his films that puts him outside of regular commercial boundaries, but leaves him short of some of the edgier directors I count amongst my favorites. I find this unfulfilled potential pretty disappointing and in fact exemplary for many other South-Korean films.
I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK isn't as overworked as his earlier work. It's still pretty whack and quirky, but it feels a lot more like its own thing rather than a film that tries to combine 10 different genres and incorporate a billion different ideas better executed in other films. It's not completely without comparison though, if you'd hire Jean-Pierre Jeunet to direct a One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest remake you'd get something remarkably similar to I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK, but at least the elements that stand out do feel very much attributed to Park's own style and vision.
The story follows Young-goon, a young girl who got committed to a sanatorium after she tried to kill herself. Spending too much time with her demented grandma as a child, Young-goon came to believe she is a cyborg brought to this world on an important mission. Her health is quickly declining as she refuses to eat regular food, convinced her body needs unfiltered electricity rather than organic fuel. Inside the sanatorium she meets Park Il-sun, a young boy who takes pity on Young-goon and tries to help her with the limited means and freedom he has.
Park's films are known for their visual finesse and there's plenty of that here. The styling is meticulous, from props to colors and camera work, everything reinforces the quirky, upbeat feeling of the film. There's some CG that is starting to show its age, but it's never gratuitous or overdone and adds value whenever used. While the visual finish could've been a little sharper and tighter, the overall look compliments the atmosphere of the film graciously and makes for pleasant viewing.
The soundtrack is similarly upbeat. A combination of more classic tunes and novelty songs (yes, there is some yodeling going on at one point) adds to the whimsical feel of the film. While not particularly memorable, the score supports the film adequately and even though none of the stand-out scenes are defined by the music, the music as a whole feels solid and refined. I tend to prefer a more creative soundtrack, especially when a film is pretty out there already, but there's really not much to complain about.
I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK also benefits from having a strong lead. Soo-jung Lim is perfect as Young-goon. She looks a little otherworldly, but that's perfect for the character she is portraying. She turns Young-goon into a loveable oddball with just the right amount of depth and intrigue. She also has a superb partner in Rain, who takes on the role of Park Il-sun. The two make for a unique, but kind and likeable couple, drawing plenty of sympathy from the viewer even though their characters aren't always that relatable or easy to understand.
While there's a lot of surface-level fun to be had with I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK, it's not just a simple freak show. Underneath all that weird and outlandish finish, there's an endearing bond forming between Young-goon and Park Il-sun. Without drawing too much attention to it, Park slowly shifts the focus so that it becomes the heart of his film. It's a surprisingly subtle balance, but one that pays off in the end. Not everyone will appreciate the more subdued ending, especially those expecting a grand finale, but it works and it grants the film some extra class.
I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK may be one of Park's lesser known films, it's definitely not for lack of quality. There are few thriller and horror elements here and comedy is more sensitive when it comes to international appreciation, so I do understand why it's a tougher film to market, but there's still plenty to love. Quirky characters, smart ideas and plenty of creativity make for a fun, surprising and fast-paced comedy with enough charm and heart to keep everything glued together. I just wish Park made more films along this line, because it's clear he has talent to spare.