by Byung-chun Min (Dir.)
Review by Rogan Marshall
Tartan Video DVD ISBN/ITEM#: B000E0OBKG
Date: 18 April, 2006 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Cast: Ji-tae Yu as R * Jae-un Lee as Cyon * Rin Seo as Ria
Seventy years into a dark and tired future, Earth's real human citizens hope to emigrate to a new planet; they are surrounded and served by cyborgs, who are practically indistinguishable from (as L. Frank Baum would have said) meat people. R (Ji-Tae Yu) and Noma (Chang Yun) work together in a special police unit detailed to hunt and destroy replic- sorry, cyborg renegades. R is secretly in love with cyborg girl Ria (Rin Seo); in an attempt to save her from her rapidly approaching built-in expiration date and its accompanying dissolution, R steals AI chips from the cyborgs he guns down at work, and smuggles them to a scientist desperately seeking a tech breakthrough with Ria as subject, for reasons of his own. This main storyline is tangled up by intricate counterplots involving the terrorist activities of escaped combat cyborg Cyper, and cute sassy teen prostitute Cyon (Jae-un Lee), whose body is of use to Cyper on account of genetic compatibility, because Cyper plans to try to escape his cyborg body before his own expiration date, by making an unprecedented leap to that of a real human.
As you already know by now, Natural City recycles many, if not all, the elements of theme and story that went into Ridley Scott's seminal cyberpunk picture Blade Runner. A few years ago, Otomo's anime feature Metropolis was a de facto remake of its silent German namesake, but the filmmakers were able to plausibly deny this fact, by rearranging its elements, and adding several wide degrees of baroque complexity to story and structure – essentially baking a new, modernized, more elaborate cake, than Fritz Lang's original, from a recipe that uses all the same ingredients. The same simile applies to Natural City and Blade Runner; the former is an ambitious revisionist remake of the latter, in all but name.
Even if lack of originality doesn't bother you, this movie has other issues. The burgeoning Korean cinema is pretty much the most advanced in the world, these days; for highbrow style and substance, just about anything Korean in the last few years, is way, way ahead of just about anything Hollywood, regardless of genre. Natural City is unfortunately not the best example of this; it often seems unnecessarily arty and indirect, and its reluctance to elucidate the background of either its characters or its cyberpunk elements – a frustrating, edgy coyness, strongly, probably intentionally, reminiscent of early William Gibson – does make this hard to keep up with. Korean pictures are practically seething with charismatic stars these days, Korean stars, that is, largely if not wholly unfamiliar to American audiences, but nonetheless glowing with star quality. This isn't true for Natural City, either; the two male leads are both a little boring and unfocused, and their nemesis the runaway skin j- sorry, cyborg, seems oddly miscast. The best performance by a long shot (she completely steals the show, to deploy a rarely appropriate cliché) is by Jae-un Lee, whose character is kind of marginal – you'll perk up every time she's in a scene, and you'll wish she were in a good deal more.
But Natural City will strike many science fiction fans as a breath of fresh air. Though its style and structure are complex and confusing, this movie also treats story and character with a respect and maturity that are sadly almost always lacking from American genre cinema. And while Natural City has sunk a good deal of cash and care into its effects and design, these elements, as well as its intermittent tense violent action sequences, remain unemphasized, subservient to a story that is, essentially, character-driven drama. Writer/director Byung-chun Min uses extrapolated technology to explore familiar emotions under unfamiliar, and also carefully extrapolated, influences and stresses, dictated by said technology. (That is to say, Natural City does these things, with its too-familiar ideas, instead of dumbing them down to the lowest level of mindless diversion, pandering to children and the attention deficient, and forcing its fantastic elements to provide one theoretically impressive and memorable effects setpiece after another – which is how American cinematic SF nearly always, if not always always, works.) This, of course, is how most of us, who have put any thought into it, would describe most remarkable prose science fiction. I think the last sizable American SF movie I saw that I would describe as mature, thoughtful, and literate, was Spielberg's Minority Report, and that was, what, four years ago, now? Unless you hate cyberpunk or subtitles, if you're a serious science fiction fan, you'll happily sit through this movie, despite its distracting flaws.