Introduction to I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (Park, 2006) – Dukes cinema, Lancaster, 7th July 2008

Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University UK)

(This is the introductory public talk I gave for a screening of a print of this film)

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Park Chan-wook is undoubtedly the most famous Korean film director, both inside and outside South Korea although his status within South Korea is rather different from his international profile. Park’s fourth film, Joint Security Area, released in 2000, was a complexly plotted satirical account of a friendship that springs up between border guards on night watch on opposite sides of the bridge of no return that straddles the demilitarized zone running between North and South Korea. Although it draws on the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa organizing the story around flashbacks and red herrings, it was immensely successful commercially and has been seen by more South Koreans than any other film.

Outside Korea, Park’s reputation is rather different and he is primarily known as the director of excessive, ultra-violent thrillers. This reputation was cemented by his seventh film Oldboy (2003), which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004. Oldboy is a highly stylized film based on a series of manga comics about a man who has been held prisoner in a room for 15 years without knowing why, and upon his release he sets out to get revenge on his captor. The film certainly includes some very violent fight sequences, although it also poses questions throughout as to how real the action we are watching is as opposed to being a fantasy of the delusional main character; however, what ensured the film’s notoriety was the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 in which South Korean student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people. Cho sent several photographs of himself to NBC on the day of the atrocity including one image in which he mimicked the pose of the protagonist of Oldboy.

I want to suggest however that this director’s reputation for making ultraviolent movies is slightly misleading for a couple of reasons and we need to be cautious about this association. One of the challenges of watching Korean films in the West is resisting the almost automatic association of these films with excess (which can verge on racist generalizations). A good example of this response is that of the distinguished American critic Andrew Sarris, whose contemptuous review of Oldboy asked, ‘What else can you expect from a nation weaned on kimchi, a mixture of raw garlic and cabbage buried underground until it rots, dug up from the grave and then served in earthenware pots sold at the Seoul airport as souvenirs?’

Of course, violence and excess has been a key means of marketing Asian films in Europe and the US for a long time. Those films that are most likely to make it to the screens of British art-house cinemas like this from Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea, Hong Kong and Japan, are those films that correspond to this expectation of excess.  Whatever the reason for this, whether or not it is due to Western orientalist stereotypes of South-East Asian cultures as inherently unhinged, tasteless, misogynistic, it means that what is distributed in the West is very selective and unrepresentative. Just as in Britain and the US, The Korean box office is dominated by romances, comedies and melodramas. In this respect, as a romantic comedy, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006) is more representative of Korean cinema than Park’s more well known films. Incidentally, for follow-up viewing there’s another recent Korean film, 3-Iron (2004) on BBC 4 this Wednesday – a very slow-paced romance by Kim Ki-Duk who, like Park, has also produced some barely watchable film violence.

A second important point about violence in Korean cinema is that it emerges from a particular historical context that shifts its meaning. Korea’s history in the 20th century was extremely traumatic. Annexation by Japan in 1910 led to a systematic attempt to destroy Korean national culture. This was followed by the country’s participation in the second world war, the Korean war which ran from 1950-3 and which left millions dead, the subsequent partition of the country, the imposition of martial law in 1972, the assassination of the president in 1979, and the violent crushing of political dissent during this period. As a result, when censorship restrictions were lifted in the early 1990s, following democratic elections in the late 1980s, the response of many film-makers was to make films about anti-social, anti-authoritarian characters. In this context, the gangster or the criminal protagonist in many films can be understood as a rejection of this history. In this respect the cartoonish, exuberant, cinematic violence found in some Korean films can be understood, at least in part, as a celebration of new-found political freedoms, revelling in the opportunity for transgression.

I’m a Cyborg, But that’s OK is Park’s tenth film and is very different from the type of film with which we might associate him. He has explained that he made the film for his young daughter partly as an apology for having spent so much time away from her filming on location as she was growing up, and partly so that he had a film that was suitable for her to watch so that she could understand what her father does. He has also suggested that he himself wanted a break from making a run of unrelievedly dark films, and so turned to this rather lighter material. The film is a romantic comedy of sorts that focuses on the relationship between two patients in a mental hospital, one of whom, Young-goon, believes she is a cyborg, and the other, Il-sun, who believes he can steal people’s souls and who is afraid he is vanishing to a dot. The idea that Park made this for his daughter is curious and troubling as the central character is a self-harming anorexic whose cyborg fantasy speaks of an extremely uneasy relationship with her body. In so far as this is a romantic comedy it is one that has uncomfortable undertones.

However, it’s also a very accomplished film. Park is a supreme stylist, and his films are made with exquisite and self-conscious attention to visual detail, and this film is his first experiment in shooting with Viper ‘Filmstream’ HD digital cameras rather than on film, which is partly responsible for the hyper-real clarity of the images and the smoothness of the slow-motion sequences.

Park is a philosophy graduate who worked as a film critic before moving on to direct films and he is very ready to acknowledge influences.  He explained in an interview in 2004 that:

‘I decided to become a film director after watching Hitchcock’s Vertigo. During the movie, I found myself screaming in my head. If I don’t at least try to become a movie director I will seriously regret it when I’m lying on my deathbed! After that, akin to James Stewart when he was blindly chasing after some mysterious woman, I searched aimlessly for some kind of irrational beauty.’

He goes on to explain that although Hitchcock was a profound inspiration initially there is a broad a range of influences bearing on his films, these include ‘people like Sophocles, Shakespeare, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Zola, Stendhal, Austen, Philip K Dick, Zelazny and Vonnegut.’ This seems like a wildly grand claim but I think that Philip K Dick and Kurt Vonnegut are very significant influences on this film with their interest in psychosis and confusion. Indeed one of the pleasures of Park’s films lies in identifying the sources. The credits sequence of I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, which shows the interior of some sort of machine and the opening scene of a factory staffed by robotic workers cites Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis; James Cameron’s Terminator (1984), the cyborg film par excellence, is also cited, while Tim Burton’s films such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) are a clear influence upon the non-naturalistic sets and the rather uneven tone of the film which slides between child-like innocence and something more desperate and uncomfortable.

Film musicals are also a very important influence upon the style of this film. One of the key characteristics of Hollywood musicals is highly choreographed and mobile camera-work and you’ll see that there is barely a shot in this film in which the prowling camera isn’t tilting, arcing, craning, dollying, dancing around the actors, strapped to their bodies or simply viewing the action from extreme angles. One of the effects of this elaborate stylization is the sense throughout the film that what we are seeing is unreal or questionable, as if we are seeing events from the unreliable perspective of one the patients. Park explained that the initial premise for this film was to imagine what a mental hospital would be like if there were no staff and it was just occupied by patients. He suggests that it is like the 1995 animated film Toy Story in which the toys come to life when no humans are present. In many films from Sam Fuller’s 1963 thriller Shock Corridor through One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, 1975) to Girl, Interrupted (Mangold, 1999), mental hospitals are depicted as hellish metaphors for society at large, microcosmic institutions that drive their patients to insanity through drugs, electro-shock therapy and conditioning. In Park’s film the mental hospital is a colourful and unreal psychedelic playground.

Park is often described as an auteur, a director like Orson Welles or Stanley Kubrick (another key influence) whose work is characterized by a signature style or a consistent set of themes. He refuses this description of himself and says that he just takes each project as it comes. However, this film does develop further certain consistent preoccupations in his work – an interest in narratives that are focused on obsessive, deluded or insane protagonists, and an interest in the effects of confinement and isolation upon individuals. Thus, if the hospital in I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK is a playground, it is not necessarily a pleasant place to find oneself.

Two final points to note with regard to this film. The first is that the main male character Il-sun is played by a Korean popstar whose stage name is Bi (which translates as ‘Rain’). He is very successful – the South-East Asian equivalent of Justin Timberlake – and this was his first film. Park has explained quite candidly that he cast him as a big box-office draw, and in one of the most delightfully arbitrary sequences in the film he sings a superb version of Frank Ifield’s famous song, ‘She taught me to yodel’, to Young-goon, when they are put in solitary confinement in neighbouring cells. He was also chosen because he wasn’t a professional actor and Park suggests that his inexperience means that he conveyed a strong sense of awkwardness and innocence. He is working on developing this parallel career as a filmstar and has appeared most recently in the film Speed Racer (2008) by the Wachowski brothers.

A second point is that, in spite of this casting, Park regards this film as a box-office failure. Although it was number one on the weekend of its release it was quickly withdrawn and grossed less than $2.5m. Whereas the monster movie The Host (Bong, 2006), which was also screened at the Dukes cinema, broke Korean box office records with 12.3 million tickets, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK sold a relatively paltry 780,000. For the director of Joint Security Area, the film that has been seen by more South Koreans than any other, this is both frustrating and amusing.