Monday, October 08, 2007

I'm Not a Cyborg, but That's OK

Park Chanwook is one of the best filmmakers working today, and in his past two films, Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, he told stories that melded endlessly inventive visual storytelling methods with operatic emotional content to create enormously entertaining and affecting films. But, the Vengeance trilogy is over and his new film, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK is more of a whimsical comedy. It’s an interesting movie, with a lot of great stuff, but doesn’t quite pull together in the way those two films do.

This film is like a slightly twisted Amelie, with a similarly eccentric female main character and the same tentative romance between two damaged people. It’s largely the central character, Young Goon, and Su-Jeong Lim’s performance that’s make the movie work. She is funny and keeps a realism and humanity going through the various ridiculous things that happen. The moments where she talks to various appliances, particularly the first scene with the vending machine, are really funny and also emotionally real. She sells you on the delusion that this girl believes she’s a cyborg, to the point that it becomes almost real. You don’t want her to learn that she isn’t a cyborg, and grow out of this at the end, you want her to succeed at being a cyborg.

Park has a lot of funny bits with the cyborg thing. I love when she licks batteries for dinner, and the opening sequence, where she charges herself is both disturbing and funny. The most visually stunning sequence occurs with the intercutting of her shock therapy treatment and a fantasy of her in a cyborg incubator.

The emotional high point of the film is near the end, when Il-Sun constructs a “rice-megatron” for her, and proceeds to install it. Here, the fantasy becomes real because making her believe in the rice-megatron would save her life. It’s hard to watch her get fed through a tube, hard to watch Il-Sun’s anxiety when she won’t eat. You want her to accept his salvation, but lurking behind is the fear that she’ll snap out of the trance, call him on the ridiculousness of the device and reject it. When we finally see her eat, and can see the gears through her chest while Il-Sun hugs her, that’s a perfectly executed moment.

But, the film suffers a bit from lax pacing. In Lady Vengeance, Park took time out to tell various stories about the female prisoners. That worked because we knew who our central character was and what she wanted. Here, the central character is less active, so the various digressions to explore other random characters wind up fracturing the narrative. If you cut out 15 minutes of that stuff, you’d have a really tight, emotional story focused on Il-Sun and Young-Goon. That’s the story I wanted, but for a good chunk of the film, it’s lost amidst the messy subplots that ultimately don’t go anywhere. Park seems to love telling these short stories, but with the exception of the woman with mythomania, they’re empty quirk without the emotional resonance of the main story.

The other major issue for me was the ending sequence. The rice-megatron’s success was the perfect emotional moment to go out on. The subsequent lightning rod scene had its moments, but the movie sort of ended without any real closure for the characters. There’s no reason for that to happen, in light of the fact that we already had the perfect closure. So, that scene winds up just feeling superfluous.

Strangely enough, the guiding narrative drive behind this film is also a drive for vengeance. However, it’s treated almost as a parody. Here, the need to get revenge on the white ‘uns turns Young-Goon into a cyborg. The conclusion of Lady Vengenace indicated that the search for vengeance strips people of their humanity. That’s reinforced here, Young-Goon is at her most cyborg when she reveals her finger guns and shoots the hospital staff. But, the film’s whimsical tone means it never reaches the deep emotion that Oldboy and Lady Vengeance did. The final moments of Lady Vengeance are devastating, when she plunges her face into the cake in a gracefully falling snow. Nothing here reaches that power.

But, even Park slightly off his game is still better than almost everyone else out there. The film is consistently visually inventive and really fun to watch. Everyone has some lesser projects in their catalogue, and I think it was necessary to lighten up a bit after the vengeance trilogy. So, the film is a success, but not a masterpiece.

1 comment:

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