Korean director of classics Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengence, returns in fantastic and upbeat style with I'm A Cyborg, and That's OK. The film was - for me and friends I saw it with - the highlight of the 2007 Edinburgh Film Festival, a One Flew over The Cuckoos Nest in Teletubbie Land. There are far too few films looking at the effects and treatment of mental illness with anything other than despair, save (off the top of my head) the excellent Icelandic Fridrik Thór Fridriksson’s Angels of the Universe, and the 1990 Dudley Moore starer, Crazy People.
Chan Wook ventures into deep and difficult waters, armed with only hallucinogenic metaphors, candy floss visuals, and a deep, resounding sense that being different and unusual is not just OK, but rather fun. From fingertips that become machine guns to socks that make you fly, it's the imaginative explosion that Ken 'Cuckoo's Nest' Kesey would have created had he been able to join the dots between the US mental health system, where he worked, and his life as a Merry Prankster touring America with the electric kool-aid acid test. If you've ever walked a little on the wild side, or want to - go see this film, out in the UK from April 4th.
Syndicated interview - with thanks to PR Marek Steven
How refreshing is it to make a film that is so different from the last few films you’ve made?
“When people say this film is completely different from my other work I tell them there is a connection. And when they say there is some similarity with my other films I tell them it’s completely different. There are some parts which are a natural progression from my previous work and some parts that are completely different. In my previous films I tried to raise the question of moral dilemmas, of what can I do?, or what should I do? Here I’ve moved away from that and wanted to look at that moment before someone’s moral ground is completely set.”
What instruction did you give your actors?
“I asked them to think of themselves as a 7 or an 8 year old, so there was more like a childhood innocence in these patients. It becomes more to do with the important question of why should I live, why can’t I just die, a question of existence rather than a moral issue.”
What did audiences back home make of it?
“Everybody who saw the film has their own opinions, but it actually split audiences in Korea. They either loved it or hated it, there was no middle ground.”
You’ve cast a major music star in the lead, Jung Ji-hoon aka Rain. How big is he in Korea?
“Rain is like Michael Jackson, very, very popular, a superstar. To the point where he went on his world tour Korean Air actually painted his face on the side of the plane. He’s a massive star. But his fans are disappointed with the film, because he’s known for his sex appeal. But in the film he wasn’t the star that they loved, he had to wear the patient’s uniform that didn’t show his muscular body off at all. He had a different hairstyle, and so on, they weren’t typical of his look so his fans were very disappointed.”
There are echoes in your film of western directors like Tim Burton and Michel Gondry – do you recognise them?
“I really like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. There’s a scene similar to one in I’m A Cyborg where the male character shrinks in size on top of the roof, but it was purely coincidental. With Tim Burton, the credit sequence in the factory is what you’re referring to. The composer asked me what kind of music I was thinking of for the credit sequence. I was trying to describe something that was a bit uplifting but a bit eerie, factory music. We couldn’t really understand each other so we used Tim Burton’s movies as a reference.”
What happened then?
“The composer went away and composed the music and it was exactly like one of Tim Burton’s movies! I thought we couldn’t do that, I wanted something in a similar vein not exactly the same, so I sent him away and he came back having taken back all the ‘Tim Burtoness’ of the music. But then it wasn’t quite so good, there was no fun to it. We tried to find a happy medium of not making it sound too much like Tim Burton’s music but not making it boring either. After that I realised when giving a reference to my crew and actors I have to be careful.”
Do you have total freedom to realise whatever comes from your imagination on the screen?
“Of course there’s nobody who actually tries to stop me from realising my vision, but it’s very difficult to find the money to do it. If you have an imagination then you want to translate it exactly into your film and it’s a very expensive process. The Korean film industry is not so big to actually make that happen.”
Does having an international reputation such as you do count for anything?
“If you want to make a film in Korean there’s an inevitable limit to how much you can actually get together. Should I decide to make a film in English other doors would open, but as long as you try to make it in Korean it’s very difficult.”
Of course the great value in world cinema is in reminding us how similar we all are, isn’t it?
“I feel that as a director too. When I make a film and take it around different countries and have conversations with people, although you might speak different languages, have different looks or eat different foods it amazes me that the basic feelings and qualities to human beings are very similar no matter what background you’re from. I’m always impressed by that. Even though everybody has similar feelings, in general, unless you’re an academic, American and European audiences don’t really like watching films with subtitles. That remains the same.”
Audiences in Korea presumably watch American movies with subtitles, do they?
“In Korea generally we have a very high level of education, and people like reading in general, so it’s never been a problem. Nobody tries to escape reading subtitles, but the really, really young generation is starting not to like it. So there’s a very different generation coming along.”
Is the inevitable influence of American popular culture very evident in your country?
“Some people are really in awe of American culture. But there are a lot of people, maybe more than those who want to learn about American culture, who would much rather watch something that they’re familiar with from their own culture with the stars that they know from Korea without it having to be subtitled. There’s a good mixture.”
And how about your relationship with America – will you be making a movie there some time in the future?
“I get lots of scripts from Hollywood, and I read them but I haven’t found the right story yet. The reason I would want to work there is because it would give me the opportunity to work with actors that I really like. I’m still waiting, if the opportunity arises I would definitely be interested, but I don’t want to make a Hollywood film for the sake of it. I want it to be a perfect project.”