May is mental health awareness month, and film plays a key role in building social awareness; what we see on the big screen normalizes ideas about people and society within us. Two films that portray people with mental illness with dignity are Lee Chang-dong’s 2010 film, Poetry and Park Chan-wook’s 2006 film, I’m a Cyborg but That’s Ok. These films also can offer useful recommendations for young filmmakers as they seek to create authentic representations of people with mental illness.
Let’s explore the harm that negative representations of mental illness cause so we can understand the importance and value of good representation. Too often in Hollywood, characters with mental illness are depicted stereotypically, inaccurately, villainous, and hyperbolically. These depictions can feed existing stigmas against those living with mental illness. For example, when a movie such as M. Night Shyamalan’s Split or Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho includes a character with dissociative identity disorder who is a murderer, with no other character depth or reasoning behind their violence besides their mental illness. This subtly confirms the audience’s bias against those diagnosed with mental illnesses. In his book Movies And Mental Illness, U.S. psychologist Dr. Danny Wedding explains that “films such as Psycho perpetuate the continuing confusion about the relationship between schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder...Friday the 13th and A Nightmare On Elm Street both perpetuate the misconception that people who leave psychiatric hospitals are violent and dangerous.” This is dangerous messaging. People who live with mental illness already face barriers and disadvantages in housing and education, according to Mental Health America. Additionally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those living with mental illness face unique difficulties in employment and health care. As a result, 70% of people with mental illness receive no medical treatment. Promoting a false characterization that all mentally ill people are dangerous murderers perpetuates stigma and fuels these inequalities.
Poetry and I’m Cyborg but That’s Ok include characters who struggle with mental health, and offer strategies that include fair representations without promoting harmful stereotypes or stigmatizing those diagnosed with mental illness.
Poetry follows the story of 66-year-old Yang Mi-ja, who is navigating her day-to-day life amid the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease when she uncovers a heinous crime committed by her grandson Jong-wook. There are several scenes that, if depicted differently, would have trivialized Mi-ja as a stereotypical “crazy old woman.” She has emotional outbursts where she cries and violently lashes out, she wanders in and out of spaces wordlessly, and she often stares at everyday objects for prolonged periods. However, the film avoids a shallow characterization by providing context to Mi-ja’s actions. The audience understands that she has emotional outbursts because it is impossibly difficult for her to cope with her grandson’s sadism. We see that she wanders in and out of areas as she revisits the scenes of the crime, searching for meaning and emotional reprieve. And when Mi-ja stares into blank space, the audience knows that she is searching for poetic inspiration for her poetry class. She’s searching for beauty in a cruel world. Because Poetry provides depth to Mi-ja’s character, and shows the context and reasoning behind her actions--even as we see her memory slip--she does not become a “crazy old woman” in our eyes. And while her character is an accurate representation of someone diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, she is so much more than that, because this film allows us to see the nuance of her emotions and her experiences.
Similarly, I’m a Cyborg, but That’s Ok provides context to its characters’ actions, especially those diagnosed with mental illness. While there are certainly very funny moments in I’m a Cyborg, but That’s Ok, the joke is never targeted at a characters’ mental illness--their symptoms aren’t played for laughs. Each character is written with respect, consideration, and thoughtfulness.Taking place in a mental hospital, the movie includes characters who are diagnosed with psychosis, panic disorder, delusions, binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, and schizophrenia. The main character, Young-goon, suffers delusions that she is a cyborg and has violent intentions throughout the movie, but the audience is shown her backstory. Her grandmother suffered similar dissociative delusions and the trauma from losing her grandmother greatly influences Young-goon’s violent tendencies.. Additionally, I’m a Cyborg, but That’s Ok is able to accurately depict mental illness symptoms, which is another way in which the film provides non-harmful representations of mental illness on screen. For example, in the background of several scenes, characters cope through self soothing and being social instead of being violent or acting comedically as many movies would opt for instead. It is clear the writers of this movie did their due diligence and researched mental health and mental illness in order to write characters who accurately represent those who suffer from mental illness.
Poetry and I’m a Cyborg, but That’s Ok show us that it is entirely possible to write a tragic movie or a comedy while still treating characters with mental illness with respect. They show us that a writer does not need to villainize their characters with mental illness nor trivialize their experiences to evoke pity, and that they need not make a joke of their character’s symptoms. The skillful ways in which Poetry and I’m a Cyborg, but That’s Ok bring non-harmful representations of mental illness can be great lessons for any creative mind who wants to be thoughtful with regards to how they portray life with mental illness in their stories.
Recommendations for Filmmakers
First, consider why you are including a character with mental illness in your story. Ask yourself: are you relying on stereotypes?
Do research into the specific mental illness or mental health experience you want to convey. This will help you avoid your representations being stigmatizing, inaccurate, and harmful.
While you are writing, keep in mind that your characters with mental illness should still be well rounded, dynamic characters with their own history, motivations, and emotions.
Giving your audience perspective into your character’s experiences and the context behind their actions will go a long way in helping your story spread awareness into the reality of mental illness.
As explained by story creator Dr. Sonja Yoerg, “the credibility of your story is worth the extra time it takes to gain a deeper understanding of your mentally ill characters.” Revealing your character’s storyline, answering the “whys” with regards to every action a character takes, will encourage your audience to develop empathy for these characters, which can translate into empathy for the real-life people who struggle with mental illness; and it’s that the goal of filmmaking.