Friday, April 9, 2010

Binder Challenge #1: I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK

Small cheat: I actually started the Binder Challenge on my personal blog a few weeks ago, so as I get the latest one ready here's the kick-off, a smaller-seen "tweener" film for Korean superstar Park-Chan wook.

Coming off the heels of LADY VENGEANCE, the final entry in the critically acclaimed Vengeance Trilogy (the other two films being SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE and the global phenomenon OLDBOY), Park Chan-wook decided to travel off the well worn path of revenge thrillers and brutal violence and move in an unexpected direction: a romantic comedy. of course, this being a Park Chan-wook film, it's a romantic comedy filled with brutal violence and revenge.

Did you expect anything less?

I'M A CYBORG, BUT THAT'S OK is a bit of a mouthful, barely mentioned in his Wikipedia entry, and a disappointment at the Korean box office. On the surface this seems a bit odd, as the film is filled with his signature style: everything is framed wonderfully, the camera zipping along inhabiting the world as if it's its own character. Chan-wook employs a color palette, and the film is peopled by an oddball cast that are all given their small moments to develop and shine. And of course there's the violence - played for laughs, sure, but still readily apparent. So all the boxes are checked and we're on target to be blown away. But unlike his other films, and unlike the films I'M A CYBORG... brings to mind (I was specifically reminded of the works of Terry Gilliam, Stephen Chow, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet), the images and moments fade away almost as soon as the credits roll.

It's an interesting premise: Young-goon is a timid factory worker who, in the opening scene, attempts to "charge" herself by slitting her wrist, inserting exposed copper wires and then plugging herself into a wall outlet. You see, she thinks she's a cyborg (but that's OK), and needs to charge her batteries instead of eating food. It's a gorgeously choreographed sequenced, mixing the humor of the situation with a visceral punch as the blood flows down her arm. Young-goon is admitted to an asylum where, in typical movie fashion she comes across an motley crew of misfit patients, including Park Il-sun (played by SPEED RACER/NINJA ASSASSIN/Asian singing sensation Rain in his debut film), a bunny mask-wearing kleptomaniac who "steals" the problems of his fellow inmates.

The meet cute/fall in love plot-line is confounded by Young-goon's insistence that not only is she a cyborg, but that she needs to charge up so she can fulfill her mission to kill all the "white-uns" for taking her grandmother away from her. Park Chan-wook shoots a number of fantasy sequences where Young-goon's fingertips open up to display gun barrels, allowing her to blow everyone away in the hospital as her mouth spits out empty shells. Park Il-sun, barely equipped to handle his own psychological problems, uses Young-goon's delusions to keep her safe as they both fall in love.

The film comes together in a few quiet, beautiful moments, such as Park Il-sun "implanting" a food converter Young-goon's back. Even as you acknowledge the absurdity of the situation, the care and delicate movements serve what would in another film be a bland, typical love scene. Later, both are locked in confinement, and their method of communication demonstrates a playfulness and innocence that shines in even the darkest portions of Chan-wook's other films. But those moments are few and far between, and large sections of the movie go by that, while visually dazzling and "cool" (the first time you see Young-goon go into her Terminator mode it's hard not to gasp with geek delight) don't leave much of an impression when the scene ends.

Just writing about the movie makes me almost think I liked it better than I did. The problem is, for all the dazzling visuals and comedic beats, I'M A CYBORG, BUT THAT'S OK feels flat when all is said and done. There's nothing particularly wrong with it, but it's missing the spark that fused his other films together, leaving this as a footnote in an otherwise exemplary career.

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