Directed by: Park Chan-wook
Films set in a high security mental institutions tend to vary dramatically when it comes to accurately presenting what life is really like for people in such confined environment. They vary from the superb ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest’ to the god-awful ‘It’s Kind of a Funny Story’. Ultimately the point is always the same, as screenplay writers and directors end up roundly critiquing the inhumanity of how people are treated, either by being drugged into stupor and losing all what it is to be alive and human, or sadly even tortured. Such environments seem unconducive to providing the necessary conditions in order for someone to not necessarily get better, but be of sounder mind. Simply put, people no longer behave like people.
I suppose it is difficult to capture what life is really like in such institutions. I remember one day after I visited my Grandfather in a residential home several years ago I referred to the place as being like ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest’. It was an unsettling environment, as zombified people grabbed at me in the corridor. They stared with dead eyes, convinced that they knew me; that I was a family member or a friend, but they could only partially recognize. Their memories were disappearing. It was horrific, the staff had to restrain the unruly, and in order to maintain control ran the home like a prison. This was a hell where many saw out their final years.
‘I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK’ tells the story of Young-goon, a woman who believes she is a Cyborg, realizing this causes her to stop eating. When working in an electronic factory Young-goon thinks that she needs to charge her batteries, she cuts a hole in her wrist and wires herself up to a power supply, electrocutes herself in the process. She is taken to a Mental Hospital after this act is perceived as a suicide attempt. We learn that Young-goon is not the only member of her family to be carted away against her will; her Grandmother also spent time in a Mental Hospital.
Park Chan-wook, who has long since established himself as South Korea’s most well-known and arguably talented director, through the word of mouth buzz that flew across the world after ‘Old Boy’ (recently remade by Spike Lee), and then a few years later launching into English speaking cinema with ‘Stoker’. Chan-wook tells this story a little looser than in his work that proceeded ‘I’m a Cyborg…’ and I suppose this could interpreted as another way of putting across the disorientation and delusion that represents what it is like to be consumed by a Mental Illness.
There is a certain amount of sweetness in the relationship between Young-goon and the sneaky masked man Park Ill-sun, who soon becomes fascinated with the new waif-like girl who arrives as the hospital. Ill-sun suffers from an anti-social personality disorder which causes him to compulsively steal; he has no regard for other people. This all stems from what was stolen from him when his Mother disappeared. Ill-sun indulges in Young-goon’s belief that she is a Cyborg by stealing away her ability to be sympathetic through conducting a little ritual. This allows Young-goon to try break free from the control of the mental hospital orderlies. The film then floats from the harshness of real life within the hospital to violent dream sequences where Young-goon goes around shooting up all the orderlies. She turns into some kind of fem bot and fires bullets from her fingertips.
The film relies on quirk. There are a few other patients who interact with Young-goon. An overweight woman who enthusiastically consumes Young-goon’s lunch, a couple who appear to be trapped in a ‘Sound of Music’ fantasy, but the ensemble cast play second fiddle to the love story. Ok, I’m not really a sucker for a good romance, but since love can be a maddening experience, perhaps a mental institution really is the most suitable location to set a love story.