Park Chan-wook has followed up his brooding revenge trilogy with a whimsical, pastel-hued romantic fantasy set in a psychiatric hospital. But fear not, although graceful and tender, I’m a Cyborg is sharply stylised and odd enough to avoid sentimentality. Young-goon is a young girl who thinks she’s a cyborg and is institutionalised after she electrocutes herself in an attempt to ‘recharge her batteries’. At the hospital, she is befriended by Il-sun, a young man who suffers from a rather special kind of kleptomania – believing he can steal things like memories, politeness and ping pong skills. I’m a Cyborg may feel like a gentle interlude between Park Chan-wook’s weightier offerings, but it is as wildly imaginative as the director’s previous work, mixing futurism, manga influences and a love story in a fresh way. I’m a Cyborg premiered in the UK at the Korean Film Festival in November and on that occasion Park Chan-wook told us more about the ideas behind the film and gave us a tantalising insight into his next project.
Virginie Sélavy: After Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, I’m a Cyborg is much lighter and almost violence-free. Did you feel you needed a break from the serious tone of those movies ?
Park Chan-wook: It’s been a very long journey, I spent five years making the trilogy and I also directed a short film for Three, Monster [a collection of three Asian horror shorts, the other two directed by Fruit Chan and Takashi Miike]. All of them have been very dark and serious and I did feel like I needed to get away from that. With the trilogy the vengeance was the end of the journey, and that ended with I’m a Cyborg. It felt right to finish with I’m a Cyborg; it was the end of an era for me.
VS: It’s interesting that you should see I’m a Cyborg as the end of the trilogy because although it’s very different in tone from the other films, it deals with the same themes. In all three films revenge was always linked to love. Here it’s just a different balance between the two – I’m a Cyborg is more about love than vengeance.
PCW: I conceived the revenge series as three films plus I’m a Cyborg, and it may look like they were made by completely different directors, but I do believe that there is a common theme throughout. Fantasy has become more and more important to me in later works. My films are becoming more feminine, there’s more hope. The themes of love and hope have definitely become more prominent towards the end of these four works. I started with Mr Vengeance, which was very dark and serious and as you go towards the end of the cycle it becomes lighter and more fantastical, and love becomes more important.
VS: I’m a Cyborg is a very sweet film, and it might come as a surprise to some fans of your previous work, but I think that that sweetness was already present in the character of Ryu in Mr Vengeance and in the Geum-ja character in Lady Vengeance.
PCW: I have a daughter so the theme of bringing up a child, bringing up a daughter in particular, has really influenced me in Mr Vengeance and Lady Vengeance, and also in I’m a Cyborg. The image of a dad bringing up a child is becoming more important in my work. But there isn’t much of a sweet element in the current project that I’m working on. After I’m a Cyborg I wanted to get back to a more serious tone. But I don’t know what’s going to happen next.
VS: There is a nod to your previous films when Young-goon has violent revenge fantasies in which she becomes a killing machine and guns down all the doctors and nurses. Why did you include these scenes in what is otherwise a very gentle film?
PCW: I believe that this particular scene is not as violent as it seems. The audience already knows that it’s not reality, that it’s a fantastical scene. No matter how many people die it’s not as frightening as it would be if it were set in reality. I believe the scene was needed because Yung-goon is very angry at the adults in general and however sweet she seems she is still really furious. The movie doesn’t have a happy ending because her anger is not concluded. It’s like when young children are angry at their parents and they say, ‘mum, I want you to die’. It’s a very childish anger but it’s terrifying all the same. It’s that kind of anger that I wanted to put in that fantastical violent scene.
VS: In Oldboy you explore the idea of revenge as a positive emotion in the sense that it gives the two central characters this incredible will to live. There is a similar idea here, although of course in a lighter way, as Young-goon’s murderous fantasies are what keeps her going – in fact, right to the very end, when she thinks her purpose is to bring about the end of the world.
PCW: It comes from the idea of the ‘purpose of existence’. That phrase is repeated throughout the film. It’s not a phrase that you hear in normal conversation, it’s more philosophical. Teenagers are always asking that question and I believe that it’s completely natural that people should wonder that. Then comes the question, ‘why should I live?’, this longing to know your purpose in life. The reason why Yung-goon becomes the way she is is because she wants an answer to that question so badly. Then she realises that machines have very strict operating instructions and a very obvious purpose, which is something that she envies, completely misjudging the situation. And she realises that food also comes into it: she has to eat to exist so in the end the only reason for existence is to exist, there’s nothing more and nothing less. Her murderous fantasy of revenge fits into that rather than it being the reason for her existence. At the end of the film she believes that she’s found her purpose and it is to become a nuclear weapon and to blow up the world. That is a very fantastical idea, not only because it’s not realistic, but also because the probability of her getting enough power from lightning to become a bomb is very low. The way in which she looks at the purpose of her existence is very different from the way her friend Il-sun sees it.
VS: You said earlier that you were interested in moving more and more towards a fantastical kind of world. But at the same time the girl is a real girl, she’s not a cyborg, that’s all in her head. While you were writing the script did you think at any point that maybe she should be a real cyborg?
PCW: At the very beginning I thought of using a cyborg in the shape of a young girl, but first I realised that it would cost too much (laughs) and then there are already lots of similar films in Japan, so it wouldn’t have been anything new or fresh. At the beginning my idea was to make a movie about a psychiatric hospital so I decided to combine the two, psychiatric hospital plus cyborg. That’s when I came to the idea of a girl who thinks she’s a cyborg, but the reason why I made it a girl has nothing to do with sexuality. The most important thing for me was that the character should have a child-like quality, that she should be almost like a little girl.
VS: Did you find it easier or more difficult to deal with love compared to the violent emotions you’ve depicted in your revenge trilogy?
PCW: Telling a love story is definitely a lot more difficult than dealing with dark, serious material because when I film a dark story I know exactly what kind of thing I’m looking for, what expressions, scenes, imagery. With love, it’s very difficult to make it look real and not like a soap opera or one of those cheesy movies that there are too many of. You see it so often and it seems so fake and so false that when you see a young couple kissing in a film you don’t feel anything, you just think, ‘oh it looks pretty’ or ‘it looks fun’. Those kinds of images are too common. In Korea there’s an expression that says that it’s really embarrassing to watch a couple kissing on screen, so that was the most difficult scene for me to film. I filmed it but I had to scrap it all and start again. Now I’m very happy with the result, I’m sure that it’s the weirdest kiss there’s ever been in any romantic comedy and I’m very happy with that.
VS: You said your next project, which I believe is called Evil Live, will be a return to darker material. Can you tell me more?
PCW: It’s not called Evil Live actually, I’ve decided to change the title, and the English title hasn’t been chosen yet. The reason why I decided not to call it Evil Live is because it sounded a bit too much like a horror film, and although it is about vampires, it’s very difficult to specify what kind of genre it’s going to fall into because it’s more about a love triangle and being unfaithful. It will star Song Kang-ho, who was the dad in Mr Vengeance. He’s a vampire who falls in love with a married woman and murders the woman’s husband…
VS: Vampires and a love triangle, it sounds great! (laughs)