Frustrating, whimsical, baffling and yet utterly original, Park Chan-Wook's new feature seems designed expressly to alienate those who were turned on to the Korean director by his revenge trilogy - Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Old Boy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. This tale of a psychologically fragile girl who thinks she's a cyborg and talks to vending machines is served up in a bright, dreamy, hyper-real style, with sprinklings of acid- laced Amelie and Alice in Wonderland, and a large dollop of Park's own- brand visual sauce. Local audiences gave the film a lukewarm reception on its pre-Christmas release.
Overseas, the 'from the director of Old Boy' tag on the posters will rope in some of the fans, but Cyborg is unlikely to achieve more than a fraction of that cult favourite's takings once word gets out that there are no hammer fights in narrow corridors; auxiliary prospects look particularly weak compared to the revenge threeesome.Park, however,could direct the phone book and make it worth watching, and there's plenty to gorge on as this meandering film winds its way towards its technicolour rainbow ending. Grotesque and tender, alternately affected and affecting, it is larded with Parkisms, from the zigzag time structure (veering into the past to explain the present, and vice versa) to the use of extreme, fish-eye close-ups, to the film's obssessive colour-coding of sets and costumes.
Korean TV star Lim Joo-Sung, whose film debut came in Kim Ji-Woon's well-received 2003 psycho- horror The Tale of Two Sisters, plays Young-goon, a waiflike girl with big manga eyes and blonde eyebrows who has a job assembling retro radios in a factory that seems to have stepped out of 1984.
When her beloved grandma is carted away to an asylum because she has eaten nothing but pickled radishes for the last six months, Young-goon begins to fantasise that she is a cyborg, but when she tries to insert electric wires into her wrist and plug into the mains she herself is whisked off to psychiatric hospital -where she refuses to eat, and attempts to recharge herself by licking batteries.
Here she meets a cast of wacky inmates, including love interest Il-soon, a young man who wears animal masks, steals people's possessions, talents and personality traits, and is tormented by the idea that he is going to shrink to a dot and vanish one day.Things get curioser and curioser,as Alice would say.
Soon we're taking in our stride a scene in which Young-goon, shod in a pair of magic flying socks, is flying through the air of her green padded cell in a bed held up by a giant ladybird while Il-soon sings a Korean-Alpine yodel.
If it all sounds impossibly kooky, it is. The supporting characters - a fellow patient who walks backwards and always apologises for everything, the sympathetic, anodyne doctors - are barely sketched in, and Korean popstar Jung Ji- hoon - known professionally as Rain - has too much of the aura and manner of a teen icon to really work as the supposedly anti-social Il- soon.
Still, this was never supposed to be an exercise in emotional realism. Neither is it an asylum film with a social conscience like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or Shock Corridor; what it does do, quite effectively, is to enter into the mindset of its unbalanced protagonists and attempt to let that mindset take over the very style of the film, right down to the musical soundtrack, a trippy mesh of Viennese waltz, jazzy vibraphone muzak and the aforesaid yodelling.
But, while the attempt is charming, the lack of any real dramatic plotspring other than obssessive behaviour becomes wearing in the long run - and it will be a long run for all but the most committed Park fans, or those who have assumed hallucenogenic drugs before entering the cinema.