I'm a Cyborg Review

From exploring vengeance three times over to assuming the position of a cyborg (apparently not ok for Tartan, which unforgivably shortened the film's title for the DVD, from the original I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK), Park Chan-wook can hardly be accused of repeating himself with his 2006 film. Though it's often described as a romantic comedy, I'm a Cyborg's humour is so bare as to be hardly existent and its romance is defiantly unorthodox. It certainly wasn't a safe choice for Park, whose western-friendly style of contemplative violence has built him a considerable audience around the world. Even if Lady Vengeance marginally softened up the brutal brilliance of Oldboy, watching Park attempt something as dementedly garish as I'm a Cyborg can be disarming. The downside there is that Park struggles to appease the viewer. Any viewer. It's not just his core admirers who may feel disoriented with this film. It's frustratingly difficult to make heads or tails of for most anyone.

Points for originality, to be sure. Our heroine Young-goon (Su-jeong Lim) begins the film working in assembly line hell, coloured to bright sensation, where she tries to insert mechanical cords into her human body because she thinks she's a cyborg. Her mother, who's already had to deal with her own mother's inexplicable attachment to radishes and belief that she's a rodent, sends her off to a psychiatric clinic/asylum. It's much cleaner than what R.P. McMurphy suffered through in Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Colours again steal the day. The clinic is some sort of sterile wet dream. Here, as with much of the film, the vibrant art direction threatens to overwhelm the attempts at compassion. White=cold=blankness. Young-goon calls the staff "white-uns" because of their lab coats. Her narration is rare, but welcomed, and Park makes the unusual choice to let several different characters serve as narrator throughout the picture. It's a good, if somewhat lazy, opportunity to fill in some of the myriad blanks in developing these people.

Other than Young-goon, only Il-sun really gets much of a chance to introduce himself. Played by the Korean singer known as Rain to his legion of fans, Il-sun has been voluntarily committed to the institution because he's anti-social, anti-vanishing, and has a proclivity to steal things, tangible and intangible alike. The two meet up in both reality and an imagined version of extended freedom. These little fantasy interludes are charming enough, but it's disappointing how Park uses them. Instead of furthering a full-fledged plot built around romantic isolation and unique acceptance of others, the writer/director chooses to plod his story along with eye-popping visuals. The plot is frustratingly buried amid cold, showy hues and angles that do more towards distracting than engendering. An antsy impatience is at work here. Park cuts and moves his camera far too frequently to establish the humanity his story requires.

Only near the final half-hour does I'm a Cyborg gear up into the deep romanticism it needs. Prior to this, the film scratches at two characters who are united in being misfits, but aren't given any sort of chemistry. An extended and violent sequence where Young-goon morphs into cyborg mode and begins shooting endless rounds of shells at the "white-uns" is both disturbing and unnecessary. The two scenes where this occurs, and especially the latter, feel like stylised attempts to briefly placate the director's fans looking for his trademark brand of violence. It only adds a "look-at-me" detour to the film. If we're to believe that Young-goon really would annihilate the medical staff, where does that place the character? Indeed, much of the movie's problem lies within its difficulty in pegging Young-goon as any sort of understandable creation. Even if she's a cyborg, Young-goon is unfortunately quite stiff. This leaves Il-sun to pick up the slack.

As an actor, Rain is a bit of a charismatic stare. Definitely not terrible, definitely not exceptional. Because Young-goon is so enigmatic and detached, his character has to be a more inviting presence for the viewer, but this doesn't entirely come through in the film. His flashback scenes are interesting, even if they fail to be affecting. By the time the film does start to come together in terms of the romantic interplay angle, the audience has a fix on neither Young-goon nor Il-sun. And, really, this is a shame because their unlikely courtship is sweet and compelling. Where Park had previously relied on colour-dominated amusements, he handles this little romance with complete subtlety. It may come on a little too fast if Park is trying to please romantics, but there's nevertheless a warm inventiveness in Il-sun's attempts to get Young-goon to nourish herself. This is largely what's missing in much of the rest of the film so it feels especially pleasing here.

Park's desire to stretch his talents are appreciated without reservation, but something feels off with I'm a Cyborg. It's visually stunning, but so are out of the box screen savers. At some point, the visuals must be abandoned for more complete characterisations. His actors here are stuck in glass boxes. Emotion seeps through a tiny hole that's almost as artificial as the cyborg ideal. You want and expect more from these characters. What Park gets out of all this is visually impressive and worth recommending, but still prone to laying out details minus the build-up. The director deserves a good deal of credit for not stamping out a total failure, and actually creating a film that is capable of slow entertainment, but we're spoiled into expecting more. The possibilities of this kind of story are nearly endless and it's a disappointment to encounter such a lack of focus. I'm a Cyborg is a film that could run a tight and solid 90 minutes or a deliberate and methodical couple of hours, but by splitting the difference, it plays like a confused child not yet ready for maturation.

The Disc

Tartan's R2 PAL release of I'm a Cyborg looks exceptionally good. Colours pretty well pop they're so bright and the sharpness of detail is pleasingly strong. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is progressive and free from any dirt or grain. It's a fine effort, matched by two solid audio tracks. Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 options, both in Korean, restrict the sound mostly to the front speakers, but the result is still a well-rounded effort when need be. A few instances of violent gunfire, as well as the whimsical music score, highlight the rear channels without forcing the cause. Only English subtitles are provided. They're optional, white in colour, and free from any noticeable spelling mistakes.

The trail of extras starts with a "Making of" (8:00) that's really just someone filming the process of Park shooting a few odd scenes. A music video (3:41) from Rain has clips from the film, but seems entirely opposite in tone. Both a teaser trailer (1:48) and a main trailer (2:02) are included, as well. By far, the most substantive bonus feature is an interview with director Park Chan-wook. Filmed at London's Korean Festival in November 2007, the hour-long piece contains some good information, but makes for a frustratingly tedious watch. The camera is static on the gentleman ostensibly there to interview Park, a female translator, and the director himself. Because everything in English must be translated to Park and everything he says must be translated back into English, there's a distinct lack of flow to the entire proceeding. Add to that the shifty nervousness of interviewer Damon Wise, who increasingly feels the need to check his watch, pour himself a glass of water, and anxiously look around the room, and it often makes the discussion a chore to endure. The lack of subtitles doesn't help matters either.

A four-page insert with an essay by Justin Bowyer is included inside the case.

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