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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Kwak Jae-Yong's Cyborg She / My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg 僕の彼女はサイボーグ starring Haruka Ayase


I'm not sure what is the actual title of this film. Some articles call it MY GIRLFRIEND IS A CYBORG (a literal translation of its Japanese title), while Wikipedia called it 'CYBORG SHE', prefer the former, it's catchier.

This film is directed by Kwak Jae-Yong, the Korean director of MY SASSY GIRL. It was said that this will be the last film of his 'Sassy Girl trilogy', after MY SASSY GIRL, WINDSTRUCK.

MY SASSY GAL is widely considered a classic Korean romantic comedy, and (deservingly) made a huge international star out of Jun Ji-hyun, although I personally thought that Cha Tae-hyun's performance was a little underappreciated. It's one of my personal favourite Korean films, I've also seen Kwak Jae-Yong's subsequent films, THE CLASSIC and WINDSTRUCK. THE CLASSIC was a decent pure tragic tearjerker, while WINDSTRUCK was a mild disappointment, because it felt too obvious that he was trying to recapture the magic in MY SASSY GAL. By doing that, I felt that he was recycling his old tricks, instead bringing in something new. After all, Park Chan-Wook's films from his REVENGE TRILOGY are pretty different from one another, why can't Kwak Jae-Yong do the same?

I guess perhaps unlike Park, Kwak has commercial considerations as well. As much as I complain about WINDSTRUCK, the film did become a mammoth hit in Japan (perhaps bigger than it was in its native country), and thus setting the stage for him to complete his trilogy with a Japanese production. And based on the sellouts I've seen, (I had to go from one theater, where only the seats of the midnight show were barely available, to another just to catch the film), I think this is going to be another mammoth hit.

While my personal Japanese language skills remain limited (it's only been 5 and a half weeks since I started learning), I think I was able to understand most of the plot, even though half of the time I couldn't understand the dialogue. The film, after all, relies a lot in physical gags and body language. Once again, Kwak attempts to meld different genres around a love story, to mixed results. The 'cyborg girlfriend' concept, after all, isn't unheard of (the anime, CHOBITS, and SHE, THE ULTIMATE WEAPON/ SAIKANO, comes to mind, and then, there's also this ongoing J-dorama with the same concept but a reversal of gender roles, ZETTAI KARESHI, which I wrote about few days earlier) So the dynamics of the protagonist Jiro and the Cyborg Girl's (like MY SASSY GIRL, she remains unnamed throughout the film, I think) relationship are similar to the other two films. He is a lovable loser. She is... a sassy and brash girl with violent tendencies, who has cyborg eccentricities this time. Yes, she alternates between being lovingly tender, and kicking his ass.

Haruka Ayase and Keisuke Koide in MY GIRLFRIEND IS A CYBORG or CYBORG SHEThe first meeting between Jiro (Keisuke Koide) and the Cyborg Girl unfolds via flashbacks (a common device used in the other two films). He is a lonely student who celebrates his birthday all by himself (and buys himself a Rei Ayanami figurine as a present). While buying himself a gift at a department store, he has a Meet Cute moment with a cute girl who is in tattered cyborg-like bodysuit, tries on a new dress and runs off without paying.

Afterwards, he has a meal by himself when the girl appears, telling him that it's her birthday as well. So they spend a romantic night together (on the run as they didn't pay for the lavish meal they had), and then before sun rises, she disappears.

One year later, on Jiro celebrates his birthday all by himself again, but the girl reappears, looking the same, yet a little different. Then he later learns that she is a cyborg, sent by his future self to save his life in the present day. It's kinda like Doraemon. Anyway, they begin living together, much hilarity ensues, followed by unexpected tearful melodrama that left a Japanese guy in front of me weeping not-so-quietly.

What amazed me most was Keisuke Koide's physical resemblance to Cha Tae-Hyun, it's almost as if I was watching a Japanese Cha Tae-Hyun onscreen. I'm sure Kwak was happy when he casted Keisuke Koide in his role.

But of course, Kwak is known for wringing really good performances from his actresses, he did that with Jun Ji-Hyun (but WINDSTRUCK was overkill, Kwak too obviously tried to maximize her screentime) and Son Ye Jin (she was good in THE CLASSIC, but she reduced Justin and I to crybabies in A MOMENT TO REMEMBER!)

This time, it was Ayase Haruka's turn to shine. It's a nice show-offy, star-making (if she isn't one already) role where she gets to act like a cyborg, then emotes, and be heroically tragic at the same time. I thought she was good, and that not many actresses may have pulled off what she did in this role, but I also felt that I've seen all these before. But hey, this is the first of the three movies she's in this year (the latter two are ICHI, a Zatoichi with a gender twist which she plays a blind samurai, and in the ensemble flick THE MAGIC HOURS, ironically, posters of all three films are pasted on my wall now, I just got the one from ICHI while watching MY GIRLFRIEND IS A CYBORG).

I was entertained by the film, just like how I was entertained by WINDSTRUCK, but life-altering film this ain't. Again, I feel that Kwak is stil recycling his old tricks from MY SASSY GIRL, and this time, it gets a little jarring. Two dialogue scenes between CYBORG GIRL and JIRO use split screens, for no apparent reason, it worked when the method was used only once in MY SASSY GIRL where Cha Tae-Hyun's character explained to The Girl what happened to them at the Love Hotel on the fateful night they met, the split screens added tension, awkwardness and some humour for that film, but in this film, it just feels a little redundant.

I almost groaned when I saw a hostage scene, and then a dancing at a club scene in the film. And then the film makes a complete 180 degree turn (like Windstruck and Sassy Girl did) by killing off its earlier whimsicality, and becoming a tearjerker. This time, the stakes are raised, and the protagonists face a massive apocalytical, city-destroying earthquake... and after that, it becomes a hardcore sci-fi that's in the vein of Spielberg's A.I. and, for a few seconds, Kubrick's 2001: SPACE ODYSSEY. I was slightly amused (the set and costume designs of the futuristic scenes ARE pretty good), but at the same time, I was wondering whether Kwak was going to be audacious and pull an A.I. in a commercial film, upon unsuspecting mainstream audiences. Then when it ends, it brings in a whole new set of Grandfather Paradox-related questions into the fray, just like most films with time travelling devices.

So I guess instead of bringing in something new thematically or stylistically, Kwak's personal innovation has more to do with which new genre he wants to play with more. MY SASSY GIRL, aside from the encounter with the AWOL soldier, only played with the other genres in those stories-within-a-story that The Girl showed the main guy. But WINDSTRUCK is less effective as the film takes a sharp turn from a bubbly romantic comedy to a weepy melodrama with supernatural elements. It's less effective because the genre-identity crisis actually hurts the story more than enhance it, distancing the audiences from the characters because of their (audiences') own conflicted feelings and reactions.

MY GIRLFRIEND IS A CYBORG suffered a little less compared to WINDSTRUCK. The use of comedy in the first half of the film, and their cute romantic vignettes bring audiences closer to the film, so that the sudden turn towards tragedy can feel more devastating because they are happening to characters audiences care for. It's a tried and proven formula (that even I myself like to use as a filmmaker). Like I said, I enjoyed the film, I like Haruka Ayase's performance, I thought Keisuke Koide is likable enough (though Kwak overplayed his weepiness and wimpiness) but I felt a little hollow walking out of the cinema. MY SASSY GIRL's blueprint has given spawn to tons of imitators throughout Asia, be it Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan, it'll be really tragic if Kwak ends up becoming an imitator of himself. That's all, the rest of the film discussion are major spoilers.


Music video of the ending theme song, 約束の翼 Wings of Promise, by Misia


I saw the plot twist coming from miles away. Right after the first extended prologue of their first meeting, I had a feeling that the cyborg girl he meets a year later is from an earlier time, while the one from his first meeting is from later in the future. This suspicion is momentarily dispelled when cyborg girls starts singing to him a birthday song and pushes his face into the birthday cake, in reference to what both of them saw at the restaurant a year earlier in the prologue. So I started wondering whether she upgraded herself to become more cyborgish, or whether my initial guess was right.

Then I also guessed that the future him built the female cyborg in memory of an actual human woman he may have met and fell in love with in the future. So I knew that cyborg would die at the earthquake... the bloody trailers gave away everything, and maybe he ends up meeting someone who looks like her.

My guesses were kinda right, and kinda wrong. Yes, the cyborg girl from the first meeting IS from even later in the future, she's in fact a human girl from the far future who coincidentally looks like the cyborg, acquired the cyborg from an auction, and travels back in time (dressed up as the cyborg) to have the first meeting with Jiro in 2007, then she disappears, but actually to reappear right after the death of the cyborg girl in the earthquare to reunite with Jiro. Nice twist, I was amazed that I understood them all despite my limited Japanese language skills.