Jules Does

Jules Does Films: I’m A Cyborg (But It’s OK)

Posted on: November 24, 2014

Hollywood has two fairly straightforward ways of presenting movies set in mental institutions. We experience the setting through the eyes of a new patient, one who seems relatively “normal”, who has been admitted for reasons which seem more to do with their status as a social misfit than any mental problem. Through this character’s intervention, the other patients begin to enjoy their lives, casting off many of the more debilitating aspects of their conditions in the name of acceptance, while the hospital bureaucracy strives to shut down the protagonist’s joyful forms of intervention and management. We thus see that it is not the patients who are mad, but society etc etc etc. (Girl, Interrupted; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)

Alternatively, we travel with an outsider (a relative, a health worker) into a mental health institution to meet an intriguing patient who is making strange claims or who appears to have strange abilities. The protagonist’s interaction with this person ultimately changes their life even as it leaves the original patient relatively unchanged from their status at the beginning of the film. (Rain Man, K-Pax)

Park Chan-Wook’s I’m a Cyborg (But It’s OK) is thankfully like neither of those two possibilities outlined above. The protagonist is a young woman named Young-Goon who has a bizarre, near-fatal ‘accident’ in the radio factory where she works, which is interpreted as a suicide attempt. What appears at first to be schizophrenia is revealed to be something a little more strange: Young-Goon believes she is a cyborg, albeit one without a clear purpose, and her gruesome “suicide attempt” was actually to recharge her failing power supply.

More (and spoilers) under the cut.

Young-Goon’s family has a history of mental illness, although her mother’s deep-seated obsession with offal and propensity for switching words in sentences around is not actually labelled an illness. It is revealed that Young-Goon’s delusion came upon her as she tried to chase an ambulance containing her grandmother (who has either Alzheimers or schizophrenia or both) in order to return her dentures to her – with the dentures in her possession (or her mouth), Young-goon speaks to the institution’s various appliances, including the vending machine and the flourescent lights. The radio gives her instructions about her new life as a cyborg, including outlining new Seven Deadly Sins, including compassion and thankfulness.

Compassion is a problem for Young-Goon, as she believes it is her mission to kill the men in white coats who took her grandmother away from her. In order to remedy this problem, she turns to resident thief Il-Soon, a former electrical engineer who wears strange masks and steals intangible things from his fellow patients – one’s trademark ping-pong serve, another’s frustrating deference – although he always returns the stolen traits when he is finished with them. Il-Soon has two main problems: an obsession with his mother, who took the family’s electric toothbrushes and vanished from their lives, and his belief that one day he will vanish into a dot. He brushes his teeth in times of anxiety, believing that once your teeth start to go, there’s no holding back. He also carries around a beautiful box containing a photograph of his mother, which he shows to people like an officer showing a badge whenever they mention mothers.

Il-Soon agrees to take Young-Goon’s compassion, but as a result is racked with pity for the strange girl, who opts to lick batteries instead of eating. As her body fails through lack of nourishment, she imagines herself becoming a weapon, her fingers becoming the barrels of guns she uses to destroy the men in white coats.

In reality, she is exhausted and given shock treatment, which she believes recharges her battery (as did the electrecution at her place of work). While she is undergoing treatment, she has a vision of her grandmother, who is trying to tell her what the purpose of Young-Goon’s existence is, but she is inaudible through the thick glass of Young-Goon’s hallucinated incubator.

Afterwards, Young-Goon is force-fed by the doctors even though she believes that eating food will cause her to stop working, which distresses Il-Soon. Il-Soon understands the nature of Young-Goon’s delusion, and uses the box containing the photo of his mother to build a “rice megatron”, which he tells Young-Goon will allow her body to process food for energy, rather than waiting for big bursts of electricity to recharge her. He “installs” the megatron in her body and then, in one of the movie’s sweetest scenes, coaches her in how to eat, taking the place of her more hateful instructor, the radio. He promises her that he’ll always be on hand to repair the megatron if it breaks.

Park Il-Soon, rice-megatron repairman.

While Young-Goon was in the hospital, her grandmother passed away. With Il-Soon’s help, Young-Goon deceiphers her grandmother’s lip-read speech to reveal the message that Young-Goon is a nuclear bomb, requiring one billion volts to detonate. The two repair to a deserted place, where they use Young-Goon’s IV stand and the exceedingly long antenna from her radio to build a lightning rod in the middle of a thunderstorm. Unbeknownst to Young-Goon, Il-Soon has put a cork on the end of the antenna, preventing the rod from working. Their tent blows away in the storm, but the morning finds the two asleep together (possibly nude) under a rainbow.

 

I’m a Cyborg is a bit of a strange blend of styles – part romantic, part gory, part hallucinatory – which is underlined by how the film shows both objective reality (Young-Goon’s collapse) and what the characters think is happening (Young-Goon has her bloody revenge) at the same time. The film, with its heavy emphasis on imagination and the role that inanimate objects can play in our lives, for good or for ill, reminds me a lot of Amelie, if Amelie were also delusional. The film it reminded me of the most was Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep, which is also largely based in the mind of its protagonist and which does not observe many of the traditional boundaries between “real” space and “imagined” space. In all of these films, the way we perceive things, even when those perceptions are innaccurate (Amelie does not actually have someone feeding her sharp comeback lines about artichokes, Stephane does not actually host a news program in a cardboard studio, Young-Goon does not actually hear the radio telling her to kill the men in white coats), influence how we live and how we interact with others. Sometimes, believing something false can help you get through something terrible and live your life in an otherwise truthful fashion. Young-Goon’s mother’s denial and repression of the mental illnesses of her mother and daughter lead to unhappiness for all, whereas Young-Goon’s treatment at the hands of the resident doctor and Il-Soon, both of whom acknowledge her delusion as real for her, is much more compassionate and, in a sense, healing.

This brings me to the treatment of mental illness in the film. As I mentioned above, I was fully expecting that Young-Goon would improve the life of some outsider through her delusion in accordance with the limited ways cinema often discusses mental illness. Although there is no doubt that Young-Goon and Il-Soon improve each other’s lives, we don’t really get the impression that they have “healed” one another – they are both sick people at the beginning and the end of the film, and although the end of the film suggests freedom, it does not suggest that they are ready for normal life. After all, Young-Goon still believes that she is a nuclear bomb waiting to be detonated. The narrative journey then is not one from illness to wellness, but from loneliness to companionship for both characters. Il-Soon stops wearing his masks (partially because he steals less often), and Young-Goon stops listening to the damaging influence of her radio and the other electrical appliances. Young-Goon also learns to trust her doctor, even though she is one of the white-coated people she has sworn to destroy. The medical establishment are not presented as trying to supress any natural vivacity or expression in Young-Goon (cf. Girl, Interrupted), and all of the patients do have legitimate mental problems. Apart from the rather upsetting force-feeding scene (which is not nearly as bad as it could have been) the doctors are presented in a sympathetic light, a far cry from Nurse Ratchet. All in all, the portrayal was handled with sympathy but still with an eye to the fact that, though these delusions were beautiful, they were fundamentally unreal and unleashed in response to a great mental trauma (one of the patients has become almost pathologically deferent and apologetic after witnessing a gruesome car crash, for example).

Since the film presents Young-Goon and her condition as something of a mystery (it’s indicated early on that the delusion seems to have been brought about by the trauma of Young-Goon’s separation from her grandmother, so a sudden shock more than a gradual build), the film might also be compared to Wetlands. In both the book and the film, the reason for Helen’s detachment from her mother (and possibly the reasons behind her eccentric hygiene) are gradually revealed as stemming from one traumatic incident in her childhood. Similarly, although we know that it was her grandmother’s removal that sent Young-Goon over the edge, it is revealed only later that the way that her grandmother was taken away was deeply traumatic for Young-Goon and involved her mother destroying a radio that Young-Goon had made.

Although it’s taken me a while to enjoy open endings, I thought this one was more than fitting for the plot. No one is totally cured and released back into society, Young-Goon never seems to learn that she is not a cyborg after all, Il-Soon’s mother doesn’t come back and apologise to him… There is no closure for anyone in the film, because there is so rarely real closure in life. I think the ending also contributed to the presentation of mental illness as something complex and not easily wrapped up like many other issues. Mental illness and the struggle with it is an ongoing thing, similar to being an alcoholic, something that you’re always dealing with in one form or another (see also A Beautiful Mind). However, as the title suggests, it is possible to find peace in one’s illness and, as I mentioned earlier, to draw strength from innacurate perceptions. This is not to say that mental illness is good (that would be a bit too much like Hollywood cliche Number 1), just that it is possible to find love and community even as one struggles with problems which isolate you from your usual surroundings.

I haven’t seen any other films by Park Chan-Wook, including his incredibly famous Vengeance trilogy, so I don’t know how this compares to his other work, and I cannot comment on whether or not a fan of the blood-soaked Oldboy would enjoy this strange romance. However, I found the film very touching and well-acted, and anyone who enjoys dream-like cinema, particularly from France, will almost certainly enjoy this film as well.

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