Original release: April 4th 2008
Running time: 105 minutes
Country of origin: South Korea
Original language: Korean with English subtitles
Director: Park Chan-wook
Writer: Jeong Seo-Gyeong
Cast: Lim Su-jeong, Rain
Warranty for Life: 01:19:37 to 01:28:12
Park is one of South Korea’s most infamous film directors. His Vengeance trilogy in the early 2000s shocked and awed many an Asian extreme enthusiast.
His following feature, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006), was quite the departure. No one was kidnapped or raped, the body count of the picture was zero. It was, gasp, a sweet, romantic love story between a kleptomaniac, Il-soon (Rain) and Young-goon (Su-jeong Lim), a girl who thinks she’s a cyborg, set in a psychiatric institution. So maybe it is a little Park Chan-wook after all…
Il-soon and Young-goon meet in the psychiatric ward. He has stolen a pair of her panties, “Thursday”, and after a disastrous first meeting, she hides in the belly of a grandfather clock and he calls her a “psycho”. She whimpers, correcting him, “cy-borg”. A fairly standard rom-com trope, this being a misunderstanding that they can soon overcome, as couples are wont to do in cinema.
So of course, after seeing her around the ward, at group therapy meetings, in the dining hall, he is drawn to her and a tentative friendship blossoms into something more romantic.
My chosen scene, Warranty for Life, is the climax of Il-soon’s attempts to save Young-goon’s life. She believes that she is a cyborg, and that eating human food will cause her to break down, and she will die. Interventions from the doctors, including electroshock therapy and force-feeding have so far been unsuccessful, as have pleas from Il-soon, whose affection of Young-goon has peaked with a kiss in the preceding scene.
Rather than trying to convince her that she is in fact human, and will die if she does not eat, Il-soon decides to work with her. With his locket, he takes Young-goon into the candy-coloured bowels of the hospital. The locket, he says, is a “rice megatron”, a device which will take rice, compress it and explode it into electrical energy which will keep a cyborg alive.
In many ways, this scene encapsulates the innocent, adolescent love that Il-soon has for Young-goon. To perform the ‘surgery’, Young-goon must remove her hospital gown. Il-soon mutters, “please remove your top” several times, but must clear his throat and repeat it in a faux-authoritative voice. Faced with her pale skin, shoulder blades and vertebrae protruding, he is moved to a tear. The close up of his face emphasises this, especially when contrasted with her black stare, void of emotions because they are forbidden by her cyborg handbook.
The detail that Il-soon has thought of in preparing the surgery is touching, and sweet. He has brought a knife, and shows her the blade, but switches to a pen at the last minute to draw a door on her back. He comments that she is dusty, and produces a puffer to create a more realistic experience for Young-goon.
As the camera zooms out, Young-goon sits quietly whilst Il-soon ‘works’ on saving her. This part of the scene has a lot of shadows, but has not lost its delirious whimsy. The pipes in the bowels of the hospital are red, yellow, blue and pink. They’re thick and bent around like something from a kid’s TV show, or a Mario game. The only components in the scene that move, that are alive, at this point are the two leads, emphasising their humanity.
The scene then cuts to the dining room, where the patients are having lunch. The atmosphere is of course tense, everyone in the room is watching them in silence, but the film still has not lost the inherent sense of whimsy. The surrealist tree is still painted on the walls, the sub-characters still exaggerate their actions, dressed in matching uniforms, and moving in unison.
Il-soon asks for pickled radish, Young-goon’s favourite. It’s touching how he has remembered this, as he listens and cares for her like no one else does.
Inevitably, it does not run smoothly, but yet again Il-soon steps up. Park uses close frames of the faces of Lim and Rain to accentuate their insularity, and how no one else in the room really matters.
He shows her the warranty for life card. Park has made this an important icon in several ways. Firstly, Il-soon is making a promise to Young-goon that he’ll always be there, like a cooler version of a high school promise ring. He’s even coloured in a heart on the card. This is so important for Young-goon because it is providing the stability that she craves in her life. The warranty for life on the rice megatron, and Il-soon’s promise as an engineer to always be there, is finally something that she can rely on.
Dually, Il-soon can be there for someone is a way that his mother was not for him. The locket that he pretends to leave inside Young-goon’s back contains a photograph of his mother, who abandoned him.
As Il-soon persuades Young-goon to sit down, and try again, he walks her step by step through the eating process. The shots are, again, cropped tight to the faces of the two leads, emphasising how personal this step to them. Young-goon looks quite bizarre, with huge eyes and hair, and her eyebrows have been bleached out and her lips paled with make-up.
The closing shots of this scene are triumphant. Il-soon goes in for the hug, the music swelling, and the camera zooms up, out and around, panning to include the whole room and all of the patients. Thematically, Park is giving them all, and us, hope; that love can conquer, and that with someone to care about you, you can overcome and be well again.
Throughout this scene, Park still isn’t letting on what is real and what is not; one of my favourite things about this movie. The tone is very dreamlike, the composition of the shots very deliberate. The audience is left to project what they want onto the blank hospital robes. And I choose love.
Frances likes words and pictures, regardless of media. She finds great comfort and escape in film, and is attracted to anything character-driven with a strong story. Through these stories, she will find meaning in the world. Three movies that Frances thinks are really good for this are You and Me and Everyone We Know (Miranda July), I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (Chan-Wook Park), and How I Ended This Summer (Alexei Popogrebsky).
When Frances grows up, she would like to write words and make pictures and have cool people recognise her on the street and tell her that they really enjoy her work.
She can be found overreacting and over-caffeinated on Twitter @penny_face, a childhood moniker from her grandmother owing to her gloriously round face.