1403, London. The year the Bethlem Royal Hospital started accepting what were called 'lunatics', becoming the first ever full-fledged mental institution. Better known as Bedlam, which has become synonymous with mental institutions, especially in negative terms, the insane treatment of people considered insane led to centuries of painful(ly slow) development, passing from the T-4 Euthanasia project of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union's obliteration of dissidents through those virtual prisons called mental hospitals. The first mental institutions were like trashcans for society, removing all the 'bad apples' and letting them rot away, as if they were criminals, separating them from the rest. Although development has finally come, most civilized nations don't use those places for political reasons anymore, and centuries of research made them better places for their patients, there's still a stigma in Cinema about mental institutions, often treating them like prisons where not only the patients are lunatics, but sometimes even the people supposed to help them follow that path. But the real issue here is... what's mental illness and schizophrenia to begin with? Is it really something we can pinpoint with clarity? Films often show those conditions from the outside, but very few bring us inside the world created by those 'lunatics'. As David Rosehhan's 1972 work On Being Sane in Insane Places, or Shin Ha-Gyun's character in Jang Joon-Hwan's 지구를 지켜라! (Save The Green Planet) show, the concept of schizophrenia is often very unreliable, and most definitely subjective. What, for example, if someone thought they were.... a cyborg?
Cyborgs, half organic half mechanical creatures, a term born in the 60s thanks to Nathan S. Kline, but one of the staples of science-fiction ever since the early 20th century, with Jean De La Hire's L'Homme qui Peut Vivre dans L'Eau (The Man Who Could Live in Water) introducing the concept of cyborgs in literature. From Asimov's The Bicentennial Man to good ole guvna Ah-Nold and his Terminator escapades, from the cyberpunk masterpieces of Oshii Mamoru to the Borg in the Star Trek franchise. Film, TV, novels, manga, videogames, all media are catapulting us into the world of cyborgs, but Park Chan-Wook's new film 싸이보그지만 괜찮아 (I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK) will be a little different, as always with Maestro Park. We're yes dealing with a young woman (Young-Goon, played by Im Soo-Jung) who believes she's a cyborg, but this is not science-fiction, it's merely a sort of gimmick to get to the point. That loving someone is about understanding their personality, entering what they call their own reality. Only difference is there's a touch of what people call schizophrenia itself, and Il-Soon (singer Rain) will have to put up with a woman who thinks she's a cyborg, not a fashion addict or a couch potato watching TV Dramas all day. It's the same thing, right? Give or take a few screws.
You could suspect Park would go in this direction after that disarmingly affecting finale in 친절한 금자씨 (Sympathy For Lady Vengeance). Back when I reviewed the film, I wrote it might have marked a turning point for Park's career, and at least at first sight this seems to be the beginning of that turning point: no more vengeance, he's now a happy man. He wants to make a film everyone can watch, children and adults alike. A film without murders, gore, sex, violence, a film about... love? But before images of matinee Disney Channel films come to mind, keep in mind this is Park Chan-Wook we're talking about. 3인조 (Trio) was 'just' a crazy road movie about an hypocritical conman, a third rate thug and a nun running away, 공동경비구역 JSA (Joint Security Area) was 'just' a drama about brothers divided by propaganda, and the trilogy of vengeance, especially in the mind of certain critics, was just an evolution of the fanboy's thirst for violence and gore, right? Yes, I'm a Cyborg is 'just' a romantic comedy, but it would be criminally dumb to think Park will just go all Kwak Jae-Yong on us. After Park's latest muse Kang Hye-Jung dropped out of the project, Park ended up picking the next best choice, Im Soo-Jung of 장화, 홍련 (A Tale of Two Sisters), who's improving at such a rapid pace it's quite intimidating. Yet, the key issue here is the casting of Pan-Asian (and now worldwide, according to Time Magazine and its latest Top 100 list) star Rain, who had acting experience on TV but never on film, although he was poised to debut in Yang Yoon-Ho's 바람의 파이터 (Fighter in the Wind), before he dropped out and passed the ball to Yang Dong-Geun.
Some people are worried this will be a star vehicle, something which will mean for Park what 외출 (April Snow) meant for Hur Jin-Ho, submitting to the image of its stars, unable to find its own identity. But then again people were criticizing his casting choices ever since Joint Security Area, when he picked 'untested' belle Lee Young-Ae and the eternal box office black list No. 1 Lee Byung-Heon for what looked to be a much too meaty thriller about the North/South divide. If I learned anything after watching a bit over a decade of Park's work is to trust him. Trust him that he'll make something meaningful out of this romcom with big stars. Because he earned it. Now in its 6th day of shooting (45 total), I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK is still far away from its December release, but Maestro Park took time to answer some of Cine21's pressing questions about his latest work. Here's some highlights:
So how did the concept of the film develop?
Park: I don't really read too many manga, but by chance two of the works I liked the most were 銃夢 (Battle Angel Alita) and 最終兵器彼女 (Saikano). What they have in common is telling the story of a cyborg girl, so I always wanted to try and make a film following that kind of concept. But because it's something that costs a lot and interests many people, there were people saying James Cameron was interested in doing something along the lines of Battle Angel Alita. So my film wouldn't have felt unique, it would have cost a lot, and because of the many action scenes could have been really uncomfortable to shoot, that's why I decided to focus on something else. But then something came to mind, the idea of focusing on a mental institution, and telling the story of people believing in being cyborgs, so we decided to go for this. I guess my films tend to strip themselves from reality more and more as the years pass, they carry a theater-like and surrealist image. So a film going inside the fantasy world of those patients, ignoring reality and focusing on the connection between their belief of being cyborgs vis-a-vis the mental institution setting, all that combined, became our major emphasis for this film. I also wanted to work with younger actors. I mean, I worked with people like Choi Min-Shik, Song Kang-Ho, Lee Young-Ae... it was about time I'd try something with 'kids', isn't it? If Lee Young-Ae reads this she might feel a little disappointed, though. But most importantly, I had the desire to make something on a smaller scale. You know, going digital, shooting in one location only, being frugal for once. You can shoot films that way too.
Every scene you shot in previous films had its own logic and reason to be there from the director's POV, even if it was stripped of realism, and this time it feels no different. But one thing, won't the viewers just see it as being too extravagant and laugh it off?
Park: Not just me, but both actions and words uttered by the actors carry their own logic and reason. It's just like being schizophrenic, after all, your actions have a certain logic, inside your world that is. Their mind focuses on a clear logic inside their own 'world', but since reality is not something you can establish a constituency for, to the eyes of 'normal' people their action become a pathological issue, something abnormal. So if a person think he's a rat, his actions match that line of thought. Yes, it might be extravagant and eccentric, but we know everything in the film happens for a reason. Now matter how much I try to distance myself from realism, I'm not really interested in doing things liberally, as they come to mind, and I don't think it even fits me.
You tend to continue focusing on films stripped from reality, as you say.
Park: 박쥐 (Evil Live) has a very strong fantasy element too, so it looks like this trend will continue. I keep losing interest in 'feasible' stories, but more than a sudden change it was a gradual one.
It feels like you're trying to put emphasis on the fact it's not a SF but a romantic comedy.
Park: It's a romantic comedy, sort of. From now my films will always follow that motto... sort of. You know, a 'sort of horror film', a 'sort of SF'... feels better talking about them that way.
Isn't this the first time you work within the romcom genre?
Park: That's right. I planned to give a very strong romantic personality to 박쥐 (Evil Live), but after shooting the Trilogy of Vengeance I just wanted to make something a little more comfortable, you know? Don't know about any other reason.
Is it a happy ending?
Park: Well... sort of? (laughs)
Be it the mental institution setting, or the fact it's a film about lunacy, the director's point of view comes across very strongly. Both the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and K-Pax with Kevin Spacey show that.
Park: I haven't seen the latter, but I've heard it very realistically portrays the symptoms establishing between doctors and patients. When I decided the setting would be a mental institution, my first principle was trying not to depict the mental hospital as a depressing place. People working in those places don't act in an uncivilized manner, and are very devoted people, sacrificing themselves to help others. But films depict those places as prisons, and show they only deal with patients with electric shock therapies and other similar ways, which is clearly not the truth. More than trying to be realistic, they're making a sort of allegory. This film, on the contrary, doesn't make the mental institution a metaphor for society and its system, it just depicts the hospital as a cheerful, comfortable place showing consideration for its patients. It's just that since patients live in their own fantasy world that's difficult to comprehend for the paramedics helping them, they tend not to understand them and leave them in peace. But there's no such thing as harming them for that reason. Why is it a love story of some sorts, then? Because the two leads UNDERSTAND each other's world, and they believe in it. It's not through treatment that they come to acknowledge that world and make it their own, but it's because they love each other that they can do it. That's the power and the miracle something like love can do. It's a story about a mental institution yes, but it also becomes a story about showing consideration for others. And entering the other's 'world' is one of the ways you can show that love for them.
It feels like just the idea of working with young actors in a surrealist setting is what made working on this film fun for you in itself.
Park: Before this film I'd focus a lot of time and effort on making the best possible storyboards, and then just follow those. But this time there's no such thing. I started writing them on a piece of paper a few days ago, and some of them don't even have pictures, most of the time I end up fixing them on the spot. It's a little different from my idea of having fun, you know? In the past, since we had the storyboards, once the shooting started I wouldn't have much to do honestly. But this time I need to focus on the film all the time, so it's not really comfortable. We're shooting in a very open, natural way. Since I'm working with very young actors, it feels like I'm acting in accordance with their spirit.
Rain's management were the first to say they wanted to work with you.
Park: Before the script was completed, when I was considering the possibility to do a 'kids flick', I was in the middle of sound mixing for Lady Vengeance, around its press screening. I just thought... why not? I've always worked with well-trained (through theater, Dramas or other films) actors with an established career and a strong personality, so this time I wanted to try the opposite. Working with someone who was just starting with films, you know? Be it non-professional acting, that sense of lacking smoothness, I thought it was worth trying once.
When 친절한 금자씨 (Sympathy For Lady Vengeance) started shooting, you said the film would show a new, interesting side of Lee Young-Ae. And this one, for Rain?
Park: He won't look cool, which in a way is different from the impression he gives you through his persona. His clothes are spacious and he never strips. I know the female staff members were a little disappointed about that, but since he's a patient in the film, I can't really do much about that. Since it's a film for children, there are no sexually-related connotations in the film. Really, I worry they'll rate it 12 and Over.
How About Im Soo-Jung?
Park: She hasn't done many humorous roles in the past, she'd usually play gloomy characters with a lot of apprehension. So, personally, I had no interest in casting her because of the image she carried, that'd be no fun. The things she does in this film... let's call them cute. She's even very courageous, as she believes strongly in her purpose in life, I guess this will be a chance to show another side of Im Soo-Jung's personality.
So why does the woman think she's a cyborg, and why does the man fear extinction?
Park: There really isn't a scene or a line of dialogue giving you those answers, but since women often live purposeless lives, they tend to reflect about what's their role in society and feel sorry about their situation, asking themselves why they were born in the first place. So at the end of this period of reflection, when they finally find that purpose they were looking for, a sense of hope, a burning drive emerges inside them. Doesn't every machine have its application? That's the key, becoming useful. Compared to that, the men in the film seem to be there for no particular reason, you might just become interested in the reason why male patients end up like that, but when everything is revealed at the end you can't help but understand them. Traditionally there has always been a connection with their mothers, and their lack of loving care and attention which drove them away from home.
Looks like this will be your brightest film to date. If 친절한 금자씨 (Sympathy For Lady Vengeance) had a baroque-like atmosphere, how about this film?
Park: A fairy tale? Lady Vengeance might have had certain fairy tale-like elements, but they're even stronger here. Then again, there were many people who said they couldn't understand the film reading the script. Even the actors needed my explanation to sign the contract, but after hearing it they all liked the story. So since I started shooting with some worries in my mind, now that people say they understand, I guess that made it a little better.
What's the part of the film you needed to explain the most?
Park: The parts dealing with whether Young-Goon is a Cyborg or not. I mean, look at 지구를 지켜라! (Save The Green Planet), and whether Baek Yoon-Shik was a real alien or not. But more importantly there were people asking me why I was doing this kind of film, what kind of interest I could have in something like this.