There are ways to do romantic comedies, just as their are ways of doing sincere dark comedies set in mental hospitals, and Chan-Wook Park goes to fantastic and unexpected lengths of subverting expectations with truly nutty- and this may be the nuttiest movie to come out of Korea this, uh, month- ideas and visuals being explored, while never skimping on making these people to care about. And yes, the "cyborg" Cha Young-Goon (Su-Jeung Lim), at first seems like a typical nut, or what one might stereotype as. Indeed, as I thought more about it, what Park goes for is almost experimental; what would it be like to have as the pivotal character of a movie the person in the loony bin who is near unresponsive to other people and who won't eat any food? At first we're plunged into her mind-set: she's a cyborg, after all, and she marks up her energy levels by her toes lighting up, and takes in such energy by licking batteries as opposed to regular consumption.
But she also has a troubled past, though more-so in the memories of her grandmother, whom she was closest with, and who we see in flashbacks was tossed away into a sanitarium, as Young-Goon was eventually, instead of actually dealing with them as real fellow family members. It's hard not to get caught up further into her much more real plight when shock treatment comes around, and that the feeding tubes just won't do any good. From the sound of this it sounds like a really tragic story, and in a way it is. But on the other hand, it absolutely isn't all the same. It's Park's funniest film, loaded with his bravura sense of style that is brutally self-conscious with the camera (lots of wonderful usages of color from greens to reds to whites and blues and so on, 360' pans, high-flying shots, a great split-screen involving two characters in two separate solitary rooms connected by two cups and a string) as well as with very assured direction. To see someone make films like 'Cyborg' or Oldboy is to see someone who doesn't mind obviously flashy moments, because there are just as many moments that are more intimate in connection between the characters.
But as I said, it's a very funny movie, with the various character in the mental hospital veritable caricatures: there's one guy who got tossed in by apologizing to everyone involved in an accident he wasn't involved in, and one fat woman who when not stealing Young-Goon's food is trying to get static electricity going from rubbing her feet, and random characters doing wacky things in the halls behind main characters talking. There's a big belly laugh at the 'picture book' of the Cyborg's, where it lists the seven deadly sins, inexplicably linked to the torture and murder of cats in the classic storybook pictures. There's even an actor who comes closest to looking like the Korean Bruce Campbell! And the scenes with Young-Goon going into super-violent mode as the cyborg and shooting everything in sight ranks right up with the corridor fight sequence in Oldboy as Park at his most staggering in choreographing mayhem.
But then there's Rain's character Park Il-sun, who is the counterpoint for Young-Goon, as he's just a crazy thief in on his fifth voluntary commitment. He'll be hopping around one moment, or imagining himself going very tiny so as to not be noticed. But what the two of them share, no matter what, is vulnerability, which soon they see in each other (or at least Il-Sun sees in Young-Goon), with scenes showing either one crying their eyes out actually being earned. It's as much of a credit to the actors as it is to Park that none of this is false sentimentality, and out of the wild comedy there is subtext always present, of the director meeting the willing audience member halfway- it is a mental hospital, and no matter how crazy it can be they aren't tapped out of life completely. This makes up the emotional tie between the two main characters, and the struggle to compromise a mental state that can't be fixed and a more pragmatic goal- eating food- leads to a real emotional highlight.
Only the denouement, or what could be considered that perhaps, as there's a nuke/bomb element thrown in with outdoor rain scenes that feel real unnecessary (albeit there's a tremendous final shot for the film), and little bits involving the supporting characters that could be left out (what's with the guy that won't stop yelling?). Otherwise, this is still prime work going on, daring even, as far as blending together some real surrealistic tendencies with the kind of spirit that went into One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It takes guts to put the personal with the wacky, but somehow I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK pulls it off better than any other film I can't think of in recent memory.