Are humor and honesty effective in dealing with death and mental illness? Are we held back by propriety and clichés?
When the white coats take away Young-Goon’s grandmother, who believes she is a mouse and has been eating only radishes, Young-Goon retaliates with a suicide attempt. Young-Goon has become convinced that she is a robot and cannot eat. Her attempts to recharge herself using batteries and power cords are dangerous and less than successful. Placed in a mental institution, she makes friends with Il-Soon, a kleptomaniac schizophrenic who fears he is shrinking and will vanish into a dot one day. He knows she needs to eat, so he fabricates a device that turns rice into energy.
Park Chan-wook’s I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK wades into the issues of aging and mental illness with an impish grin which never fades. You can watch the trailer here. Young-Goon has had such a difficult time dealing with her grandmother’s dissolution that she tries to cut out her feelings, asking Il-Soon to steal her sympathy so that she may kill the doctors in white coats to avenge her granny. Being a cyborg gives her life purpose; as a robot she is designed to destroy. The scenes in which she ridiculously imagines herself a weapon, shooting bullets out her fingers and dropping shotgun shells from her mouth, are some of the most entertaining of the film. I think many people, pressed too far by life or society, have fantasized such power. It isn’t real, and it doesn’t solve anything, as Young-Goon eventually accepts. The film’s combination of violence and humor seems to be a way to talk about the rage that humans feel when they question the meaning of life. This suggests that the way to rehabilitate those who fantasize about violence is not to suppress it, but to talk through it.
Similarly, Il-Soon is afraid of not existing, of fading into a dot. At some level we all have this fear or doubt, and, for many, religion addresses this. Il-Soon finds the thing that helps him the best is to care for Young-Goon, who has even less going for her than he does. When he serves her, his life has meaning. He learns to love Young-Goon as if she were his own self.
There are some moments in the movie which are shocking and difficult, even amidst the madcap humor, but it is an honest attempt to work through existential issues without the normal cliches we use. What seems to be irreverence may actually be some sort of homage. Can we respect another’s journey even if it doesn’t resemble our own?