I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK
Directed by Chan-wook Park
“Get up and listen to the hum of the fridge in the middle of night. On a cold winter morning, feel the sound of the boiler that has been running all night. Think of the lighthouse's holy and beautiful heart of love. They move us to tears because they have a purpose of existence.”
Chan-wook Park, a forerunner of Korean New Wave cinema and director of the internationally well-known “revenge-trilogy,” Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Old Boy, and of the upcoming, twisted religious vampire sensation Thirst, once made a romantic comedy entitled I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK (ICBTO).
Coincidentally, I am working this summer for a TV studio, and my work consists, more or less, of reading, summarizing and giving my opinion on scripts as potential TV romantic comedy films. After spending hours on end going through such material, I’ve become a something of an expert on the genre and can officially declare ICBTO to be an example par excellence of the romantic-comedy. Here’s my reasoning.
First, romantic-comedies are, if they do their job, simultaneously heart-warming and amusing; these films should leave you with a goofy grin, and you should find yourself biting your lip, repressing a giggle, and wiping a tear or two from your cheek. ICBTO doesn’t disappoint in this regard. The film tells the story of a young man and woman, Park Il-sun and Cha Young-goon (Su-Jeong Lim and the Asian superstar Jeong Ji-hoon aka Rain), who fall in love at a mental hospital. Young-goon, while striking up conversation with electrical appliances and attempting to charge herself with batteries, believes she is a cyborg; Il-sun, by constantly performing odd “transference” rituals, believes he is able to steal traits and abilities from other patients, such as ping-pong techniques and sympathy. Separated from her Grandmother, Young-goon desperately seeks to escape, kill the orderlies, bring her grandmother’s dentures to their rightful owner, and find her life purpose as a cyborg. Along her journey, she finds something more—true love. Sounds good, right? Although bizarre, there is no doubt that ICBTO fulfills its duties as a romantic comedy.
Second, romantic-comedies are, generally, built like pop-songs: they follow a distinct, immediately recognizable structure that is easily likeable and, on average, uninspired. The television studio I’m working at runs 90-minute romantic comedies every Sunday and Wednesday evening throughout the year. They offer little more nutrition for the body than candy. ICBTO is definitely a treat, but it is not easily forgettable like the average romantic comedy.
Which brings me to my third point. Romantic comedies can only be considered above average if they do their job memorably within the predictable pop structure. This has nothing to do with the temporal ordering, stylistic eccentricities, or unique dialog, but rather dynamics. These films are engineered to please. A romantic comedy is composed of a series of movements in which tension is in a constant dynamic flux. Tension is created and attenuated any number of times to produce a suitable emotional response in the viewer. These films almost always end in climatic resolutions filling the viewer with heartwarming emotion, like a sugar rush. But despite the uniform psychological effect of romantic comedies, the degree of overall pleasure varies from film to film. Some candies simply taste better than others.
Recent examples of memorable, delicious romantic comedies are Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Punch Drunk Love, Buffalo 66, and Audition. All of these films, more or less, follow the typical romantic comedy structure, but have become cult classics. Their exceptionality derives from one or more factors: Eternal Sunshine boasts a mind-blowing narrative, Punch Drunk Love mixes outstanding, offbeat humor with striking color and music, Buffalo 66 is a stylistic masterpiece, and Audition mixes horror into the traditional romantic-comedy plotline. These exceptional elements are present as the film does the work of a romantic comedy, while also intensifying the film in a unique and memorable direction.
ICBTO, I want to suggest, is one such film. From the outset, one remarks at the striking use of bright colors and the breathlessness of the high-energy editing. The film sports striking stylistic tropes throughout: direct camera addresses by characters, intertwining of past and present, blurring of fantasy and reality. The dialog is intelligent, with bursts of magic-realist, poetic brilliance, and comedic wit reminiscent of Hals Ashby’s Being There.
While being playful and light-hearted, ICBTO is also surprisingly fearless in its ability to approach heavy themes successfully. Things that would normally register as kitschy, dismissible metaphors—Young-goon searching for her function as a machine—are transformed by the film’s strong visual elements into poetic treatments of existential questions; ICBTO explores its subjects not through reason and deduction, but instead through affect and intuition. In mediocre romantic comedies, this temptation to shun conscious reasoning in favor of an emotional reading runs the risk of intellectually debilitating the viewer, but in ICBTO the intuitional impulse happens on an almost elegiac level. Like good poetry, its emotional obligations are, in a sense, legitimated by its distinctive style and rhythm. It elevates the romantic comedy’s status above that of the decoy: it can be both savored and pondered, not merely propagated by a movie studio as misdirection for ticket revenue.
Which brings me to my conclusion. Yes, ICBTO, is a heart-warming, romantic comedy. But it is also much more. Its exceptional quality is its magic realism, which should delight the imagination and sensate palate of any viewer. The one major flaw of the film is that it is too long – the ideal running time of a romantic comedy is ninety minutes, but the film clocks in at an hour and forty-five minutes (the last fifteen minutes could easily by thrown out). Nonetheless, I highly recommend watching it. Park makes excellent films, and ICBTO would make an interesting watch as preparation for the upcoming US release of his latest work, Thirst—a blood-spattered love story about a priest turned vampire and a young married woman that is due in theaters July 31st.