NOTES ON ENTERTAINMENT, CULTURE AND MORE FROM KOREA (OR WHEREVER)

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Do Cyborgs Dream of Eclectic Conceits?

Wow, my blog is barely three months old, and already I'm re-using post titles. The inner geek dies hard (being a Philip K. Dick fan and all).

Anyhow, yesterday afternoon I caught an advance showing of the new Park Chan-wook film I'M A CYBORG, BUT THAT'S OKAY, which stars Im Soo-jung and the singing star Rain (aka Jeong Ji-hoon). Park Chan-wook made his name in Korea for his hugely popular JOINT SECURITY AREA, but in the West, he is better known for his "vengence trilogy", SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, OLDBOY and LADY VENGEANCE. Many people rave about Park, calling him a genius and using all manner of superlatives. I'm a tad cooler in my opinions ("cool" as in chilly, of course).

CYBORG is billed as a "romantic comedy", and is the first Park film to receive a 12 rating from the Korea Media Ratings Board (meaning people age 12 and up can go see it) -- The Vengeance Trilogy, unsurprisingly, were all 18 films, while JSA was a 15... MOON IS THE SUN'S DREAM also received a 15, but the ratings system was quite different back in the early 1990s, and I never saw the movie so cannot comment about it.

The story of CYBORG, such as it is, is of Yeong-goon (Im Soo-jung), a girl who thinks that she is a combat cyborg and ends up in a mental hospital. While there, she meets a wacky group of fellow nutters, including Il-soon (Rain), who plays a young kleptomaniac with an anger management problem. With the fantasy sequences, it comes across kind of like ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST mixed with BRAZIL ... then run through a substance strainer.

The Good:
- Visuals. Once again working with cinematographer Jeong Jeong-hun and production designer Ryu Seong-hee (about whom I hope to talk more in a couple of weeks), Park makes CYBORG look great. From the opening scene, with Yeong-goon working in an imaginery assembly line, to the fantasy sequences to the rain storm, almost every frame of CYBORG pops with color and detail. In fact, the opening credits are probably the most attractive and alluring credits I have ever seen in a Korean film.
- Editing. Always another of Park's strengths. The energy, humor and interesting ways the camerca moves, scenes cut, and everything is put together make CYBORG one of the best edited films of the year.
- Effects. For a light, modest film, CYBORG features a surprising amount of computer effects. Most of them are effective and natural... How far and fast the Korean movie industry has developed.
- Tone. Light, amusing. Occasionally outright funny. For a light romantic comedy (even one set in a mental hospital that features a few violent scenes), Park basically set the right mood for most of the film.

The Bad:
- The Story. As usual, one of Park's weak points. It is no coincidence (in my humble opinion) that the best Park Chan-wook movies have derived from other source material (JSA was a book, and OLDBOY was a Japanese comic book). This is a rather plain-jane of a story
- The Characters. Everyone here is so affected and mannered, it really keeps you at a distance. Yes, Im and Rain are cute. But that is about all they are. I think the acting is fine, but the actors have to perform in such an over-the-top manner, they did not have much room for depth.
- The Etiology (that is, the biology of mental illness). Once again, Park Chan-wook has shown that he is completely ignorant of mental illness. That was one of my biggest complaints about SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, where the spastic, cerebral palsy character behaves in a way completely unlike anyone with cerebral palsy has ever behaved. Now in CYBORG, he has made the same error -- an error of laziness and ignorance, and a real shame for a movie set in a mental health facility and completely concerned with the mentally ill.
Now, I know a lot of people think "well, it's only a movie," and if you are one of those people, I'm sure you can overlook this glaring error. But I could not. Especially given how Park was quoted in the Korea Herald:
"Love involves the two separated worlds that are interconnected with each other, and that's how schizophrenia goes hand in hand with romance."

Ugh. No, that has nothing to do with schizophrenia. In fact, this sloppiness really pissed me off. But that's just me. Your results my vary.

So. Could CYBORG be a hit in Korea? Possible, given the stars of the film and Park's skills (not to mention the marketing clout of CJ Entertainment). I'm guessing in the 3-4 million admission range. Not a mega-hit, but potentially a modest one. I double the film will get much consideration internationally, though.

Other notes about the film... Yes, Rain takes his shirt off and he sings (I'm sure that will be important information for some people). I wonder if Yeong-goon ("young goon") was supposed to be some kind of joke. There is an obese woman in the film, treated with the usual cruel cliches. Speaking of cliches, there is actually a happy-clapping scene (you know, when the hero does something special, and everyone in the room starts clapping) (ugh). Some of the music in CYBORG is really good, especially near the end, with the grandmother flashback scene.

Coincidentally, later that same day, I happened to catch PAN'S LABYRINTH, which just opened in Korea. PAN'S is a rather similar story (young woman driven by the troubles in her life into a world of fantasy), but the two movies could not be more different. Of course, PAN'S director Guillermo del Toro was going for a totally different effect, but I do think the two films are worth comparing. Del Toro's film is story-driven, psychologically intriguing and just a great way to spend a couple of hours. And you cannot cry Hollywood budget -- PAN apparently cost around $15 million, which is in line with Korea films these days.

(Hey! I just realized that PAN does not come out in the United States until Dec. 29. I love getting stuff in Korea before the West... happens so rarely. If you are reading from the United States, consider this one more strong vote to go see PAN'S LABYRINTH.)

6 comments:

Reel Fanatic said...

As a long-suffering American, I do indeed have to wait to see Pan's Labyrinth, but it's definitely on top of my must-see list whenever I get the chance ... Cyborg just looks plain silly, but I often silly, so I'll probably give it a chance

Mark Russell said...

Hi there. Thanks for the comment.

Yeah, I was probably too hard on CYBORG in my review. Probably because I hold Park Chan-wook to a much higher standard than I do most other directors. I tried to be even-handed, but got the feeling that I was coming across like some kind of big meanie. Oh well. Hopefully people will be able to enjoy CYBORG for what it is.

Super Bi said...

Silly is OK with me considering some of the riff raff that's being passed off as "artistic" ventures in film-making here (in the USA) and everywhere else. We American/Western viewers may have a different slant on things foreign; but, I've learned to endure/accept/appreciate the differences. Thanks for taking it "easy" on the actors, especially Rain, who has turned in brilliant performances in the 3 drama-series he's completed; with the last "A Love to Kill" scooping the Asian TV Awards #1 spot. Appreciate your being way over there and filing great stuff: A definite in our favorite site index!

Anonymous said...

I havent seen this movie yet but the story strangely resembles a futurama episode.Fry and bender are sent to a robot mental institute for helping a robot with "anger management issues" rob a bank and fry ends up thinking that he is a robot himself....towards the end,he thinks hes a "combat cyborg".

JiMong said...

I appreciate your review on this movie and others. Many thanks, always.

Just a curious silly question....If not Rain, who would you cast for this role?

Mark Russell said...

> Just a curious silly question....
> If not Rain, who would you cast
> for this role?

Don't know if Rain did anything "wrong" with the role. He is no Edward Norton, but he seems more than adequate. This is a director-driven film, and any glory/blame falls into Park Chan-wook's lap.

Not exactly the same thing, but tonight I watched Sam Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS. Great film. One thing I loved about it was how no one was the "good guy" or the "bad guy". There was a moral ambiguity to every character in the movie that was so refreshing. In so many ways the opposite of Park Chan-wook's films (and most filmmakers these days).