Korean Movie Explores Human Emotions From a Cyborg Perspective

Welcome to MangoBot, a biweekly column about Asian futurism by TokyoMango blogger Lisa Katayama. If you've ever questioned whether you're really an alien or a cyborg, well, you're not alone. Young-goon, the protagonist featured in acclaimed director Park Chan-wook's latest film, I'm a Cyborg But That's OK, is sent to a mental hospital after she tries to wire herself into a machine she's building at a radio factory.

Unlike Park's previous mega-hits, like Old Boy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Cyborg didn't become a giant box office hit in Korea. But it's doing pretty well in the film festival circuit overseas — it won an award in Berlin, and opened the festival in Hong Kong. It plays next at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival on March 15th and 16th. Here's a quick analysis of what I felt were the most unique aspects of this movie:

Korean Movie Explores Human Emotions From a Cyborg Perspective


Characters:
Beginning with overly imaginative, schizophrenic Il-Sun — played by pop heartthrob Rain — the story includes some unforgettable characters you learn to love. There's an elder woman with myth-o-mania, a guy who sewed up his own butt, a guy who fell in platonic love with a calf he was raising, a woman who's obsessed with her skin and her flying socks, and a girl whose dream is to join the Edelweiss Choir. And then there's Young-goon, who is convinced she is a cyborg with a mission to obliterate all "white coats" but isn't quite sure how she's supposed to recharge her batteries (instead of eating lunch, she has a lunch box full of alkaline cells that she sticks in her mouth at mealtimes). "I didn't come with an instruction manual," she says.

Korean Movie Explores Human Emotions From a Cyborg Perspective


Emotional baggage:
Humans have a lot of emotional baggage. Perhaps one of the reasons Young-goon decided she was a cyborg was because she stopped feeling things — or she felt too much and inadvertently turned it all off. We get glimpses of her past, which include a grandmother who was convinced her offspring were all mice and a mother who avoided her child's existential questions by turning to radish. Later, when she finds the secret cyborg manifesto while staying at the hospital, it stipulates that the seven deadly sins for cyborgs are sympathy, thankfulness, hesitation, daydreaming, being sad, restlessness, and feeling guilty. In one of my favorite scenes in the movie, Il-sun performs a virtual operation on Young-goon, taking away her sympathy and allowing her to attain a full charge and become the killing machine that she was destined to be. It's interesting that this seemingly heartless act is really driven by a very human emotion, vengeance. Meanwhile, Il-sun takes pride in his stealing skills — his parents ignored him so much when he was a kid that he believes he is sometimes invisible.

Korean Movie Explores Human Emotions From a Cyborg Perspective


Seeking comfort in machinery:
Since Young-goon can't relate to other humans, she seeks solace in her conversations with the vending machine and the pay phone, and she takes orders from the mysterious voice coming out of her radio. The nurses can't get her to eat, so at one point in the film, they decide to give her shock therapy. Lying there with hundreds of wires sticking out of the treatment cell they put her in, Young-goon feels right at home. She reveals that she was raised by electrical wires in an incubator. "I feel like I've been born again," she says as the session ends and her toes light up. She walks off her wheelchair, goes upstairs, loads up her ammo, and goes on a full-scale massacre of the evil white coats, storing cartridges in her mouth and dispatching bullets machine gun-style from her dainty fingers.

Here's the totally pop-y trailer: