Robot Stories (2003)

2004-02-13 (Limited release)

Greg Pak’s debut feature film, Robot Stories, examines the connections between humans and machines in an age of burgeoning technology. In this, the film treads familiar ground, covered recently by A.I., tracking the tragedy of a very smart robot treated as an expendable “pet” by its human masters. Like Spielberg’s almost great film, Pak’s suggests that, while our understanding of technology may be evolving, our connections to each other remain tentative at best.

Pak’s film (divided into four sections) is, like A.I., less interested in science fiction than metaphor, suggesting that human interactions with robots reflect the ways that humans interact with each other. All the segments focus on outsiders, whether they are women not quite ready for motherhood (“My Robot Baby”); sculptors who want to die rather than have their brains scanned into a computer, like others in this invented future (the dreary, pretentious “Clay”); androids at work and falling in love (“Machine Love”); or geeky, misunderstood young men (“The Robot Fixer”).

Easily the most convincing, subtle, and well-made section, “The Robot Fixer” follows Bernice’s (Wai Ching Ho) efforts to bring her son, Wilson (Louis Ozawa Changchien), out of a coma by obsessively repairing his collection of Microbot toy robots. At the same time, her relationship with her daughter, Grace (Cindy Cheung), is strengthened through their mutual distress. They deal with one another gently, revealing generational differences as they struggle toward reconciliation. Grace sees little rationality in her mother’s decision to repair Wilson’s toys, but accompanies her in her quest, going to garage sales and toy stores in an attempt to help her mother repair herself. The relationships — between mother and son, and mother and daughter — mirror each other, as parent and child roles overlap and alter one another.

While other segments in the film verge on melodrama, “The Robot Fixer”‘s fundamental metaphor — by fixing inanimate objects, one can fix what is wrong in life — forms a solid structure, thanks in large part to strong performances by Ching Ho and Cheung. Bernice considers her son an “other,” until she realizes their commonalities, a revelation inspired when Grace reveals that the two are “the same.” In the end, she discovers that what seems so foreign in him is really an inkling of herself. That’s when she can finally let him go, not as an alien being, but as a familiar extension of herself. When, riding in Grace’s car, Bernice takes a remaining robot toy from her purse and swoops it through the air, she signals her acceptance of her dual role as caretaker and one in need of need care.

The contrast between the alien and the known is overt in “Machine Love.” Employed at a computer-programming firm, an android named Archie (Pak) is labeled “freaky” and “creepy” by his cruel officemates. Eventually he notices a female android (Julienne Hanzelka Kim) across the street in a similar office building. Their meeting leads to a predictable resolution: two outsiders find each other and live happily ever after. Still, one brief shot of the female android provokes more thought than any other scene in the segment. While Archie is watching his love across the way, she is fondled by male officemates and looks out the window, trying to ignore what’s happening. It’s a chilling moment, evoking both slavery and commodified sexuality; it seems a warning, as we advance further into cloning and robotics, that we are also opening doors to abuses of those deemed “less than human.”

Unfortunately, complicated insight is rare in Robot Stories, which more often proposes simpler “truths.” By the end of “Machine Love,” the two androids make love and are afforded “some privacy” by their suddenly sympathetic human colleagues. Also reductive, “My Robot Baby” concerns what seems a primal relationship, between Marcia (Tamlyn Tomita) and her rather terrifying mechanical child. When she attacks the child, the film seems about to consider of the horrors of motherhood. But then Marcia is off the hook, when an adoption agency representative tells her, “Every child sometimes looks like a monster.” The broad allusion here is too pat and wraps up difficulties too quickly.

Robot Stories falls short, in the end, not because of a lack of talent. Indeed, it heralds Greg Pak as a promising director with an excellent eye for composition and capacity for encouraging excellent performances from his actors. “Everything is changing… except the human heart,” reads the movie’s tagline, and therein lies the problem. In an age of humanoid technology, everything is indeed changing, including the ways we love. But Robot Stories is more concerned with soliciting conventional emotional reactions than thought. Insisting on the machine’s potential — even its desire — for emotion, the film doesn’t consider the calculating nature of humans. Robot Stories is really only about people, and rather one-dimensional people at that.