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Tuesday, 24 February 2009

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

Director: Park Chan-wook
Stars: Lim Su-jeong and Rain

Of all the names in Korean cinema that I've been discovering over the last couple of years, the one that has stunned me most is Park Chan-wook and I haven't seen his mostly highly rated film yet. That would be Oldboy, the middle film in his revenge trilogy; but I have seen the first, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, as well as JSA: Joint Security Area, both films that amazed me. This is something completely different again, a difficult film to categorise; it has romance in it and comedy and drama, but isn't really any of those things alone.

Its influences are quickly obvious. The opening credit sequence looks like an Arnie film from the 80s but with a soundtrack by Danny Elfman, suggesting a quirky action film. The initial scenes back up that quirkiness but rather than Arnie we focus on a delightful young lady who looks like a Korean version of Audrey Tautou. She's Cha Young-goon, played by Lim Su-jeong, who is best known for A Tale of Two Sisters, one of the most highly regarded Korean horror films and one that I really should get round to watching. And yes, the way that the story unfolds, with all its quirky characters and back stories, is reminiscent in many ways of Amelie.

However this young lady is not a social misfit with a penchant for quirky hobbies, she's a nutjob. We first meet her at the factory in which she works making radios of some description, but she slits her wrist, inserts wires and plugs herself into the mains. As you might expect, she ends up not in a hospital but in a loonie bin where she explains to the soda machine and the light above her bed that she's a cyborg and that she needs to recharge and get rid of her sympathy so she can kill all the orderlies and escape to return her grandma's dentures to her. She also refuses to eat because, hey she's a cyborg, why should she?

Given the joyously bizarre fellow inhabitants that populate this institution, it's somehow amazing that she can keep our attention, but she does. Among these lovable fruitcakes, who include a man who constantly walks backwards and apologises for everything, a fat lady who's invented a means of levitation through static electrical tension and a young lady who's practicing to join the Edelweiss Choir, there's one in particular who becomes very important to her: Park Il-Sun, played by the Korean musician known as Rain.

He's even stranger than the others, not just because he walks around in very strange ways wearing a rabbit mask. His inherent ability is to steal things from people: not the things you might expect, like money or jewellery, but intangible assets like talents and emotions. Naturally young-goon wants him to steal her sympathy, which she sees as one of the deadly sins, and eventually he does. He's a striking character who fits this sort of strangeness perfectly. No wonder the Wachowski brothers sought him out to appear in Speed Racer, his second film and first after this one.

The story is amazing stuff to watch because all the various fantasies of the various patients get constantly mixed up, so that we quickly lose track of which parts are real and which are entirely fabricated. They're all great fun though and it's easy to ride along with the movie without thinking about what's going on behind it. I wonder what professionals working in the field would think to this with all its veiled suggestions that the only way lunatics can be healed is through clever manipulation of their fantasy worlds. The professionals really don't do much in this film, it's the patients who achieve the victories. It's a fascinating approach and it makes this film part Amelie, part Benny and Joon and part The Princess and the Warrior, along with a whole bunch of uniqueness.

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