Plot: clumsy student meets a girl who might, or might not, be a cyborg.
The early 2000s were a particular rich time for epic romances of various kind, especially in the Asian regions. Bollywood had the Shah Rukh Khan spectacular Om Shanti Om (2007), in Japan there was the modern fairytale Air Doll (2008), and South Korea provided our current subject, My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg. While set in Japan and featuring Japanese talent in front and behind the camera this is a South Korean romance through and through. Disarmingly honest, deceptively simple, and unflinchingly sentimental My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (released domestically as 僕の彼女はサイボーグ and Cyborg, She) is a romance first, a science-fiction epic second, and two action setpieces notwithstanding, it’s pretty much a Richard Linklater feature where the only action is two people having a conversation. Frequently bordering on fairytale territory and at least as beguiling as A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) this is more than just an extended valentine to James Cameron’s prime early work. No, this is something better. A monument that has stood the test of time.
In the twenty years since My Sassy Girl has become an intrinsic part of South Korean popular culture. Jae-young Kwak’s original My Sassy Girl (2001) was a domestic box office smash, and as a sequel My Sassy Girl 2 (2010) was both inevitable and expected. Before it arrived My Sassy Girl was first remade in America (back when Elisha Cuthbert still had a career), in Bollywood as the critically panned Ugly Aur Pagli (with Mallika Sherawat) and as a limited television series in Japan, all in 2008. A decade and a half later the Mainland China My New Sassy Girl (2016) followed before Korea reimagined it as a period costume dramedy with the series My Sassy Girl (2017). More importantly, it laid the necessary groundwork for what has been retroactively dubbed the My Sassy Girl cycle. After My Sassy Girl (2001) Jae-young Kwak would round out the cycle with Windstruck (2004), My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008), and Colors of Wind (2017). Now that the Terminator mythology has been thoroughly and completely sullied by both James Cameron and a few others, it’s time to let others work the same concept. As such My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg is the best Terminator film since Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), only reimagined as a South Korean rom-com and not a blockbuster action epic.
And who’s the titular girlfriend? Former gravure idol Haruka Ayase. Just 8 years before (in 2000) Haruka enchanted everybody with her voluptuous figure, flawlessly pale complexion, and her bikini pictures became a thing of legend. She was probably in no small part responsible for the sudden influx of anime sex doll lang mo (𡃁模) models flooding the Mainland China webmovie circuit. Now respected A-listers as Chrissie Chau Sau-Na (周秀娜) as well as semi-respectable pillars as Daniella Wang Li Danni (王李丹妮), Pan Chun-Chun (潘春春), and Miki Zhang Yi-Gui (张已桂) - not to mention minor starlets like Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan (胡夢媛), Yang Ke (杨可), and Zhu Ke Er (朱可) all, at least to some degree, owe their career to what Ayase did earlier. Haruka parlayed her good looks into a lucrative acting – and singing career. She soon became a popular television hostess and corporate spokesperson for various products and won the Best Actress title at Japan's Television Drama Academy Awards. Haruka scored her first big comedy hit with Happy Flight (2008) and followed it up with the amiable high school sports comedy Oppai Volleyball (2009) (oppai, for those not in the know, is the Japanese word for breasts). On the small screen she appeared in the period costume wuxia Ichi (2008), and the historical Edo drama series Jin (2009-2011). Keisuke Koide co-starred with Ayase in Jin and his recent work includes Hideaki Anno's celebrated Shin Gojira (2016) and Gordon Chan’s historical war epic God Of War (2017). Suffice to say, Haruka Ayase is the Joey Wong Cho-Yin of the Weibo and Instagram generation.
The basis of My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg is the fictional The Demolition Terminator screenplay written by the Sassy Girl in My Sassy Girl (2001). If the title of that script wasn’t enough of an obvious giveaway My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg is Jae-young Kwak’s heart-wrenching valentine to The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Not only is this a romantic comedy by a Korean director (and if there’s anything that the South Koreans absolutely excel in it’s romances; tragic, platonic, and otherwise) it inspired a decade (and counting) worth of inferior imitations coming primarily from Mainland China, which shares much of the same cultural values. Things have come full circle now that the A.I. romance concept has caught on Korean television with witty and well-written dramedy as I’m Not A Robot (로봇이 아니야 ) (2017) (where Chae Soo-bin has to pretend she’s a prototype robot, only later to convince her owner that she’s not) or the hopeless romantic but not quite as erudite Netflix original My Holo Love (나 홀로 그대) (2020) (Ko Sung-hee falls in love with the holographic avatar of an app on a highly-advanced pair of glasses). Jun Ji-hyun will, of course, always be remembered as the original My Sassy Girl but it was Japanese gravure idol-turned-actress Haruka Ayase who was the first Cyborg She. The West meanwhile lags irrevocably behind and has yet to catch up with the movement. What else is new?
22 November 2007. Jiro Kitamura (Keisuke Koide) spends his 20th birthday by himself buying a present at Daimaru Department Store. There The Girl (Haruka Ayase) does her best to get his attention and when he does she smiles at him. She steals some clothes, walks funnily in front of him and the two go to Jiro’s favorite restaurant where he eats his spaghetti to a long and peaceful life the way he has always done these past years. The Girl sits with him and the two eat their meal, which in case of The Girl amounts to about half of the menu. Jiro confides in her that he’s jealous of the patrons on the other table who are having cake, champagne, confetti, and garlands. The two exchange birthday presents as she casually slips into the conversation that it is “my birthday too!” They rush out of the restaurant without paying which provokes the owner to give chase through the streets of Tokyo. The two spend several hours seeing the sights of the city until The Girl mentions that it is time for her to go back where she came from. In a touching and teary goodbye The Girl relays her experiences with a past lover. How she was not allowed to see or touch him until she could reciprocitate his feelings. The Girl insists that Jiro not see her cry and remember her the way she was before they were forced to part. Jiro is indescribably attracted to this bold, sassy girl and vows he’ll search Tokyo and wait for her so they can be together again.
22 November 2008. Jiro Kitamura spends his 21st birthday by himself buying a present at Daimaru Department Store. There A Very Familiar Girl (Haruka Ayase) does her best to get his attention and when he does she smiles at him. She steals some clothes, walks funnily in front of him and the two go to Jiro’s favorite restaurant where he eats his spaghetti to a long and peaceful life the way he has always done these past years. The Very Familiar Girl surprises him by offering him cake, champagne and even throws confetti and garlands at him. The night seems to be going well until a Crazed Gunman (Hiromasa Taguchi) start shooting in the restaurant. The Very Familiar Girl responds by throwing the Crazed Gunman out of the window thus saving Jiro and the rest of the patrons from a certain demise. Shaken from the happening the two retreat back to Jiro’s apartment where he profusely apologizes for it being such a pigsty. The Very Familiar Girl reveals herself to be a cyborg from the future by playing a 3D holographic projection wherein an Elderly Jiro (Rokuro Naya) warns his younger self of an impending disaster. The restaurant shooting left him paralyzed but thanks to a lottery ticket he bought earlier he was able to alter the future. The next 60 odd years he spent all his time and fortune on building a cyborg to save his younger self from harm. Cyborg She is a spitting image of The Girl he met on 22 November 2007.
From that point onward she acts as his protector, his loyal companion and soon they are living the happiest days of their lives. Occasionally Cyborg She will intervene in tragic incidents that Elderly Jiro regretted not being able to thwart. Over time Jiro starts to develop feelings for his protector and wonders if she can “feel his heart.” Unfortunately Cyborg She is not equipped to handle such deep and complex human emotions as of yet and friction occurs. On the same public stairs where he met The Girl the year before Jiro breaks up with his Sassy Girl. He forbids her from seeing and even touching him until she is fully able to reciprocitate his feelings. It soon dawns upon Jiro that he has made a terrible mistake but he notices that she’s still looking out for his best interests without being seen. As predicted disaster does strike and an enormous earthquake similar to the Touhoku earthquake in 2011 razes Tokyo completely to the ground. As his apartment block collapses Cyborg She materializes out of thin air to save him. Within the ruins of Tokyo Cyborg She clings to Jiro and tells him, “I can feel your heart” before a pile of falling debris completely destroys her. In the fallen city Jiro searches hoping to find what’s left of Cyborg She and when he finally does he tells her, “I can feel your heart.” Devastated by his loss Jiro spends the next 61 years rebuilding Cyborg She. Elderly Jiro’s birthday marks the completion of Cyborg She. Together with their maid robots Elderly Jiro and Cyborg She have cake, champagne, confetti and garlands. Together Elderly Jiro and Cyborg She watch the sun set. The sun sets on Tokyo, but also on Elderly Jiro’s life who passes away, content of his life's work.
The far future. The year 2133, to be exact. A student (Yuriko Yoshitaka) tells her friend (Haruka Ayase) that the auction has a cyborg on display that is a spitting image of her. Intrigued by such mysterious coincidence The Girl buys the defunct cyborg in hopes of experiencing whatever was left to linger in the automaton’s hard drive memory banks. Having imprinted the cyborg’s memories The Girl is indescribably attracted to lovably clumsy student Jiro Kitamura. He who’s destined to become a great in the field of robotics. She vows to find and meet the mythical Jiro before Cyborg She does, so they can be together. Our Very Familiar Girl does indeed spent the eve of 22 November 2007 with Jiro, who's completely unaware of who she is. First at Daimaru Department Store and later at Jiro’s favorite restaurant where the two eat spaghetti to a long and peaceful life. There’s even cake, champagne, confetti and garlands and birthday presents are exchanged. History unfolds exactly the way it was predicted by Elderly Jiro and an enormous earthquake razes Tokyo completely to the ground. Within the ruins Jiro clings to Cyborg She and tells her, “I can feel your heart.” In a flash of lightning The Girl emerges from the fogs of the fallen city. Jiro is momentarily mystified but is indescribably attracted to The Girl. At long last the two star-crossed lovers have found each other again and now they have all the time in the world to live their happiest days together.
Jae-young Kwak has succeeded where most, if not all (excepting the first), canonical Terminator sequels have consistently failed across the board. By switching genres, swapping the genders of the lead characters, and recombining just about every key trope of the Terminator franchise My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg is not only an extended love note to James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), but also an instantly recognizable variation on his biggest hit My Sassy Girl (2001). And it mixes both elements so elegantly, so effortlessly too. My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg is rich in small details, bits, and pieces that seem unimportant at first, but reveal themselves to be crucial to the plot and do so only on repeated viewings. The writing is tight and the three-act structure resembles Back to the Future (1985) and Run Lola Run (1998) rather than either any big budget action blockbuster or the more typical rom-com. When it comes right down to it, though, My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg is a sprawling, old-fashioned epic romance sure to stir hearts across age brackets and demographics. It’s easily one of the sweetest romances since Leslie Cheung and Joey Wong Cho-Yin in A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). And just like A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg is an incredibly elegant fusion of genres. The action is beautifully choreographed, the science-fiction is carefully considered and the romance is heartwarming. It’s also genuinely funny when it needs to be.
You can take the man out of South Korea, but you can’t take South Korea out of the man. To the untrained eye My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg might look stereotypically Japanese, but nothing could be further from the truth. No one does romance better than South Korea. Anybody who has seen a decent amount of K-romances will instantly recognize the conventions. Whether it’s the way a certain scene is framed, the way a piece of dialogue is delivered, the exchange of colorful gadgets, a nursery rhyme, the way Cyborg She carries Yiro on her back, and the companionship and sense of belonging she offers him – even when he’s too blind to see, or simply not receptive to what he’s offered. Asia always understood the human aspect of both The Terminator (1984) and, in case of My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) better than any other place that spawned regional imitations. It’s that hyper-idealized concept of platonic love at the heart of My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg. While none of these values are exclusively Korean in the strictest sense (and actually are more reflective of Asian culture in the broader sense) they will be recognizable to anybody with an eye for such details. Remember that scene in The Terminator (1984) where Kyle Reese confesses to a stunned and shellshocked Sarah Connor that he loved her from the moment he laid eyes upon her and traveled across time to be with her? My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg is that movie. It all starts with a simple wish, and a deep longing. "I had nobody in the entire world who would celebrate my birthday with me," is the line that opens the movie. A simple premise beautifully explored.
In short, this is a masterfully scripted, self-contained epic romance that uses its sense of modernity to weave a heroic tale of love, loss, introspection, and overcoming. My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg carries what only can be described as a Tsui Hark influence. Just like Joey Wong Cho-Yin in 1987 Haruka Ayase is veritably ethereal in the triple role as Keisuke Koide’s perennially nameless love interest lost across time and space. The most interesting part is the manner in which the first – and third act are written and cut. The first act shows his meeting with The Girl from his viewpoint and follows his story until disaster inevitably strikes. It then changes viewpoints and follows The Girl from the future in her quest across time to find Jiro, the object of her affection. In what is undoubtly the movie’s greatest feat is that it replays events we saw earlier with a slight variation, very much like Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1998). Just like in that movie decisions can, will, and do have far-reaching consequences in the future. Like in Groundhog Day (1993) Jiro and his Sassy Girl meet three times but it is not until the third instance that both are ready for, and committed to, each other. While it might use science-fiction and action movie conventions My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg is, first and foremost, a romance.
An old-fashioned romance. A tale of two lovers separated by circumstance, by fate, by time. Two lovers that do eventually find each other again. Often imitated, never surpassed (Mainland China especially took to plagiarizing it with almost religious zeal) My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg is nothing short of a contemporary classic. Poetically photographed, beautifully scored, and blessed with star-making performances from both Keisuke Koide and Haruka Ayase My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg is simplicity elevated to an artform. Only Air Doll (2008) (another Japanese feature that Mainland China pilfered for all it was worth), Perfect-Lover.com (程序戀人) (2018) and more recently the South Korean series I’m Not A Robot (로봇이 아니야 ) (2017) and My Holo Love (나 홀로 그대) (2020) came close to channeling the oneiric fairytale quality that was so wonderfully captured here. Not since Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) were genres mixed so effortlessly elegant, and was romance so innocent and pure. That it would launch Haruka Ayase to superstardom was all but a given. My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg has something for everybody and never makes a bone about what it is. The verdict? This is nothing short of spectacular. See it. Today. Preferably right now.