The story of “I Am a Cat”, narrated rather winsomely by Kang Min-hyuk, is about how cats are adorable and our friends, and how we are lucky to live in a world where kind-hearted volunteers provide the services necessary for cats to live as our neighbors. There are interviews detailing what this care entails. There are also cat photographers, who dedicate their lives to catching cats in their most natural moments, recording them for posterity.
And that’s where “I Am a Cat” has a point that is somewhat distinct from, say, whatever cat pictures or videos you are likely to already have seen as general Internet distractions. Cats in East Asia predominantly live outside. Housecats are relatively rare, so the Korean cat, in motion, is a predator and scavenger who avoids human contact. Even the regular promise of food is often not enough to cajole them into easy petting distance.
The political argument made by director Jo Eun-seung is that it doesn’t have to be this way. He focuses not on the comparably luxurious lives of American cats, but of Japanese and Taiwanese cats who live with somewhat more acceptance from their human neighbors. In Japan there are entire islands where cat populations have been allowed to fester out of control. Part of it is for superstition, part of it is for tourism, but mostly it’s just because the locals like having lots of cats around.
“I Am a Cat” is positive to a fault. The closest we get to any kind of negative conflict is one scene where a cat has been trapped in an unexpected place and heroic measures must be taken to bring the poor baby to a veterinarian. There are frequent explanations of why cats or cat handlers will do such and such action, but this editing exists mostly to keep us from overdosing on cuteness in the many, many scenes of adorable cats hanging out and playing around.
In all fairness I wasn’t really expecting “I Am a Cat” to be any more ambitious than this, and really, urban cat behavior is interesting enough in its own right that the documentary was certainly worth the price of admission. But I write all this as a person who already like cats and always wants to greet any I meet in the street. They of course always run away and “I Am a Cat” whispers comforting thoughts like, what if they didn’t run? What if you could live in a world full of cats?
It’s pure escapism, albeit relatively realistic escapism. I could probably, given enough time and resources, cultivate a loyal following of cats in my own neighborhood. And hm, come to think of it “I Am a Cat” does give a lot of background explanation on how this task could be accomplished, and why it’s important, and what other help cats need to keep from getting too obnoxiously intrusive in the world of humans. Well, there you go. I guess I learned something, so extended cat video premise notwithstanding, I suppose “I Am a Cat” succeeded as a documentary.
Review by William Schwartz
“I Am a Cat” is directed by Jo Eun-sung and narrated by Kang Min-hyuk.
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