Monday, December 29, 2008

Hooray for region-free: I'm a Cyborg, But That's Okay

I've read a few claims that region coding will be less restrictive for Blu-ray than it was for DVD. Certainly, we're already seeing signs of this, with Blu-ray having a mere three regions vs DVD's six, and apparently several studios are going region-free on catalog title and even new releases. I still worry about how long this is going to last - it might have been a response to HD DVD not bothering with region coding at all, and now that there's no need to compete with Toshiba, we'll see more things region-locked.

I hope not. It's probably different outside the United States, but here, region coding has the primary effect of annoying a company's best customers, either by making titles we want unavailable (or needing a hacked machine) or taunting us with better special editions oversees. Honestly, everyone wins if various people with rights to release a movie have to compete to release the best edition.

We almost missed out with I'm a Cyborg anyway; Tartan Films only acquired the United Kingdom rights and then filed for bankruptcy soon after announcing a Blu-ray edition. I figured that was it, until a crawl through Amazon's new releases turned up some of the other discs that were announced at the same time (Paranoid Park, Sky Blue) as import discs; a quick trawl through SendIt indicated that this one had been released, although it wasn't in stock, but could be had on order. Apparently, some either slipped out before Tartan went into receivership or the company that bought Tartan eventually put it out. All that was left was verifying that it wasn't Region B.

Worth noting: The Blu-ray looks amazing. It's easily Park Chan-wook's most colorful movie. Still, it's always kind of stunning to watch a Blu-ray or HD DVD when you haven't in a few weeks and notice that, no matter how good you thought upconversion is, or the HD signal from the cable company is... It can be that much better.

Anyway, here's hoping it shows up in the US sometime soon; maybe to cash in on Thirst, Park's upcoming sexy vampire movie.

Saibogujiman Kwenchana (I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 December 2008 in Jay's Living Room (Blu-ray Disc, imported from the UK)

Even with the recent success of Bong Joon-ha's The Host and popularity of Kim Ji-woon's The Good, the Bad, and the Weird on the festival circuit, Park Chan-Wook is likely still the best-known Korean filmmaker outside his native country. Like any director who has found success within a certain genre, though, his ventures away from the familiar are regarded with suspicion, and as a result, his new movie - which is not a revenge story, but a decidedly off-kilter romance - is not getting much exposure at all on this side of the Pacific.

It's offbeat, in part, because most of it takes place in a mental institution. Cha Young-goon (Lim Su-jeong) was committed there after an apparent suicide attempt that came from delusion that she is a cyborg (which also contributes to her anorexia, as cyborgs don't have to heat). Once there, she meets a number of patients with issues of their own, but the one that she connects with the most is Park Il-sun (Rain), a thief who believes he can not only steal tangible things but parts of people's personalities - and that he's in danger of shrinking to the size of a dot and disappearing.

Though I'm a Cyborg has occasionally been described as a romantic comedy, it doesn't fit the usual template that well. The comedy is often pitch-black, as Young-goon fantasizes about fully recharging and slaughtering the "white 'uns" (the doctors and nurses who took her schizophrenic grandmother away), among other things. And while the romance is at times a little one-sided, it is also fairly uncomplicated; we're not given manufactured misunderstandings or plot devices that separate them. For all the peculiar things said and going on, it is a fairly straightforward love story.

That sort of movie needs a strong cast to make it work, and by that I don't mean the entertaining group of secondary characters (although they are quite enjoyable, too). Rain and Lim have tough roles; they've got to be not all there in a convincing way, but the movie wouldn't be half as enjoyable if the audience merely sympathized with or pitied them. Rain, a pop star in his first major acting role, is at times a little uneven as Il-sun. He's called upon to be more capable and self-aware than the rest of the patients, and it's sometimes a little difficult to get a handle on what his true personality is amid the conflicting purposes. It's not a bad performance; in fact, he's pretty good with dialog, though he doesn't always communicate well without speaking.

This is not a problem for Lim Su-jeong. She plays Young-goon a little broader than Rain plays Il-sun; we can always see the child-like belief in her fantasy world that allows reason to just fly past her. She's very earnest in acting out the rules of Young-goon's world, whether talking to vending machines or holding batteries to her tongue to recharge herself, but she avoids acting overtly robotic. Her behavior would almost be cute if she wasn't also unnerving: She doesn't blink very often, her eyebrows have been dyed to near-invisibility to make her face somewhat of a blank, and she genuinely looks as if she hasn't been eating to the point where it may be dangerous.

Making the female lead look unhealthy is just the start of what Park and his collaborators do to make this film memorable visually. There is some slick CGI in places (a late scene that references the nifty opening credits is actually pretty darn impressive), and some spots where the effects seem to be awkward or scaled back a little to keep the delusions from seducing the audience. Much of the film is shot in bright, almost overwhelming colors, with interesting camera work. It's perhaps Park's most beautiful movie.

Beautiful enough that it's a real shame few here will get to see it on the big screen. Or even the small one - as of right now, it has no U.S. distributor, two years after its Korean release. I hope it does; maybe the release of Park's more commercial next movie will grease the wheels.

Also at HBS, along with one other review.

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