Director: Park Chan-wook (South Korea). Year of release: 2006
A production line of female assembly workers making radios. The women are uniformly dressed in red. One of them listens to the instructions (possibly just in her head) to raise a radio ariel, cut her wrist and attach her bleeding arm to the mains. Young-goon believes that she is a Cyborg, which means that she’s hooking herself up to the mains to recharge her batteries. Later she decides that she doesn’t need to eat. It’s not long before she is detained in a psychiatric hospital.
In the hospital, she feels oppressed by the “White Uns” – the hospital staff – and fantasises about taking them all out on a shooting spree, shooting bullets out of her fingers, and replenishing them from her mouth. She is tormented by memories of her radish-bingeing, rodent-identifying grandmother, who was also taken to an asylum by an ambulance going too fast for the young Young-goon to follow on her kid’s bicycle.
Young-goon does not respond to her urges to kill the staff, well, in part because she can’t really shoot bullets from her fingers, but also because she was never fully convinced of her gran’s teachings that Sympathy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and thus something to be avoided at all costs. Eager to commemorate her beloved grandmother, Young-goon spends much time and energy trying to teach herself to be less sympathetic and more murderous towards her captors.
At night, Young-goon talks to vending machines and lights, with whom she feels some mechanical affinity. As an aid to communication, she uses her granny’s false teeth. She believes that she has an inner power which she can recharge (visible, to her at least, by her toes lighting up in turn), but that this power might be running out. This means that she continually licks batteries to try and recharge herself.
In the hospital, Young-goon comes across Il-Sun, a rabbit mask wearing, obsessively teeth-brushing kleptomaniac who seems to be able to steal not just tangible things but, say, someone’s ability to play table tennis. Il-Sun even believes that he can steal people’s souls. Young-goon urges him to steal her sympathy so she can finally revolt. Some sort of romance develops, although most people in the hospital are desensitised, so this is only possible within certain parameters.
I was at a party shortly after this film came out, and remember talking to a woman who was absolutely enchanted by this film. I do get this. If you’re prepared to go with it, there is tonnes of stuff which is incredibly inventive. However, I must say that I found it hard work. Brilliant in part, but with other parts which just seemed to drag.
There are a couple of inherent problems with films set in psychiatric institutions. One is to assume that most people with mental illness are full-on manic all the time (I haven’t seen 12 Monkeys since it came out, but one of the (many) reasons is that I found Brad Pitt’s gibbering performance pretty offensive really). Another is an empathy-low tendency to laugh at the silly things people do when their brain starts to lose control.
Maybe I’m overthinking it, but too often here, if feels like we’re being asked to be amused by people because of their quirkiness (read: mental instability). Some of this, such as the scene where Il-Sun starts yodelling, causing Young-goon to use magic socks to be transported by a giant ladybird to the Swiss Alps are both delightful and hilarious. But more often, I felt something a little more sinister.
It’s time to use That phrase. The film is dogged by a certain Manic Pixie Dream Girl quality, which makes Young-goon charmingly harmless. She is appealing, it feels, because she has no power. You long for some of the anger of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – a film which had its own problems but absolutely celebrated the agency of people dumped into psychiatric hospitals.
Sometimes “surrealist films” is shorthand for “the director hasn’t felt the need to think about plot and structure”. There is certainly a bit of this here. And you sometimes worry whether director Park Chan-wook has a sign on his office wall saying “you don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps”. Having said this, the film often looks great and some individual scenes work really well.
Ultimately, I think that I’m a Cyborg but that’s ok stands or fails on whether we think we’re laughing at the protagonists or with them. I was never convinced that there was enough empathy for the characters, and the film felt too often more like a freak show than a portrayal of sympathetic characters. I know that others saw the film differently, and I am glad that they could enjoy it a little bit more than I could. Nonetheless, some of the set pieces were still amazing and should be celebrated,