Young-goon, the central character in I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, has one of the odder looks I’ve come across in all of cinema. She sports a black fright wig with severe bangs, bleached eyebrows and a set of protruding teeth thanks to the fact that she likes to wear her grandmother’s dentures. Oh, and on occasion she opens her mouth to reveal a machine-gun roll of bullets that somehow end up shooting out of her fingers.
This is all because Young-goon, played with beguiling daffiness by Su-jeong Lim, does in fact believe she’s a cyborg, to the point that her family has her committed to a mental-health facility. There she meets an array of fellow patients suffering from all sorts of delusions, many of which writer-director Park Chan-wook recreates with hyperactive panache.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK certainly flirts with cutesy insanity – the tendency of some films to trivialize mental illness by using it as an excuse to have outlandishly quirky characters. There are times when Young-goon’s fellow patients are little more than punch lines (they often serve as visual gags in the background). For the most part, each patient is given one defining idiosyncrasy – like the guy who walks backwards because he’s pathologically apologetic – and that’s it.
Yet this didn’t bother me as much as it possibly should have. It’s partly the performance of Lim, who never allows her freakish appearance (or behavior) to overwhelm the character’s humanity. When Young-goon reminisces about her grandmother, who suffered from her own sort of schizophrenia, we realize that Young-goon’s feelings of fear and sadness and confusion aren’t any less significant simply because her sense of reality is distorted.
The Korean singer and actor known as Rain strikes similar notes in the role of Il-sun, a fellow patient given to wearing homemade masks and thievery. He becomes attached to Young-goon and protective of her, especially when she stops eating because she believes human food will ruin her internal system.
Lim never allows her freakish appearance or behavior to overwhelm the character’s humanity.
There’s something romantic, then, to the scene in which Il-sun tells Young-goon he has invented a “rice megatron” that will convert normal food into cyborg-friendly energy. It’s a bit queasy when he pretends to cut a hole in her back and insert the device, yet also incredibly sweet. You get the sense this is the first time anyone has taken Young-goon seriously.
There are other bits that will sound ridiculous yet somehow, in the hands of Park and this cast, evoke an empathetic sort of whimsy. Young-goon gauges her energy level by looking at her toes; she’s at full strength when each nail is lit. Another patient believes she can fly by lying on her bed and rubbing a pair of fuzzy socks together. Park shows us how it works. Throughout, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK strikes a balance between blithely endorsing the delusions of its mentally ill characters and comically demonizing them.
This balance is especially evident in the character of Il-sun, who, thanks to Rain, has the demeanor of a soulful pantomime. A patient himself, Il-sun doesn’t see Young-Goon as someone who needs to be “fixed.” Yet when she refuses to eat, he understands that her illness could doom her. And so he seeks a way to protect Young-goon from her delusions without denying them.
Sound medical advice? Perhaps, perhaps not. Clearly I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK is mostly working at the level of contemporary fable rather than medical docudrama. That it manages to keep at least one foot on the ground is what makes the movie truly unique.