Cha Young-goon realized she was a cyborg relatively late in life. This is unusual for cyborgs, according to what we can glean from Young-goon’s conversation with the lamp at the psychiatric ward in which she is housed. She made her discovery when she was a teenager, after her schizophrenic grandmother was committed to another psychiatric ward. Now, Young-goon speaks only to electronics, energizes herself by touching batteries instead of eating, and dreams of killing the “white ‘uns” – the doctors who institutionalized her grandmother. Unfortunately, her insistence on charging herself with batteries over eating food has left her too weak to follow through with avenging her grandmother.
Chan-wook Park’s I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK paints an intricate portrait of a Korean psychiatric ward and its varied collection of inhabitants. The patients range from a man who will only walk backward out of humility, to a young girl who distances herself by only indirectly looking at other people through her mirror. In telling these characters’ stories, the film adopts the difficult task of portraying reality while exploring experience through the subjective lens of what the institutionalized patients see. The film’s opening credits overlay a backdrop of machinery and clockwork, seen as if through an X-ray, which suggests that these are indeed Young-goon’s insides. Later, when Young-goon fantasizes about killing the doctors with her machine gun hands, we experience her bloody rampage as if it was reality. Immediately afterward, the film cuts to a shot of the frail girl, brandishing her arms at a set of confused doctors before she falls to the ground in exhaustion.
Park Il-sun is another patient at the hospital, who fears that he will disappear. He steals aspects of other patients’ identities in order to keep himself from vanishing, and displays a lack of compassion for others. Young-goon asks Il-sun to “steal” her sympathy so that she can kill the “white ‘uns.” By spying on Young-goon and eventually stealing from her, Il-sun starts to sympathize with Young-goon and ultimately falls in love with her. He then takes it upon himself to convince her to eat by creating a device that he says converts food energy into electricity. With Il-sun’s invention, Young-goon can eat and still recharge on her own terms. To implant the device inside of Young-goon, Il-sun explains that he must operate on her. The point of entry, he explains, is a door in Young-goon’s back. He methodically operates, feigning reality to the degree of shaming her for her dusty circuitry inside. By respecting Young-goon’s delusions, Il-sun earns her trust and confidence. This scene of love, sympathy, and complete trust is the true heart of the film. The shared experience unifies the goals of these two patients: Young-goon’s quest for the purpose of existence, and Il-sun’s search for the ability to sympathize. Together, the two are able to heal one another.
Near the conclusion of the film, Il-sun is finally able to convince Young-goon to overcome her anxiety and take a bite of rice. When he does, fellow patients take each step with Young-goon, waiting to swallow their food until she does. Although the patients in the institution appear lost in their own worlds, they relate to each other’s hardships. Through common experience, the patients are able to help one another in a way that the doctors may not understand. In the end, Young-goon is finally able to trust her doctor and Il-sun no longer fears that he will disappear.
I’m a Cyborg manages to capture the vibrant character of the psychiatric ward and its patients by allowing us to see within the minds of the characters – patients and doctors alike. The film explores the relationship between the patients’ realities and the external world’s reality, characterizes the tension between the psychiatric patients and their doctors, and examines the stigma attached to mental illness.
I’m a Cyborg But That’s Okay is available to stream on Netflix.