[retro review] Natural City

Starring:
Yu Ji-Tae, Lee Jae-Eun, Seo Rin, Jeong Eun-Pyo, Jung Doo-Hong, Ko Ju-Hye, Yun Chang

Directed and written by:
Min Byung-chun

Year: 2003

Set in the distant future after a great war has ravaged the city R (Yu Ji-Tae) attempts to find a cure for his dying lover, Ria (Seo Rin), a dancer cyborg who is close to expiration. ‘R’ however, is also a decidedly shady cop who has been stealing A.I. chips from dead cyborgs and selling them on the black market. So determined is R to save Ria, he is convinced by cyborg creator Dr Giro (Jeong Eun-Pyo) that he needs the body of wayward prostitute Cyon (Lee Jae-Eun) to cure her.

His actions compromise the Military Police unit he works for as they attempt to combat renegade cyborgs and the unit leader Noma (Yoon Chan), is on his own personal crusade to capture Cypher (Jeong Do-Hong) the lead renegade cyborg. It is inevitable their personal missions clash, and tensions ever rise and simmer.

This is a visually stunning film that won the Grand Bell Award for Best Visual Effects and was nominated in the Best Film Category at the International Fantasy Film Awards 2004. ‘Natural City’ is big on production, budget and VFX and is openly acknowledged by writer/director Min Byung-Chun to be a homage to Blade Runner. Indeed, it is often referred to as the Korean version of that film and it is easy to see why with its post-apocalyptic landscape, renegade cyborgs and police who are out of favour with themselves as much as the rest of the world.

Yu Ji-Tae does well with the character of R being distinctly dislikeable – a refreshing change from the heroic lead that everyone adores. Seo Rin is often accused of underplaying her role of Ria, but the empty actions and expressions are perfect for a machine that can show no signs of human emotion. Jung Doo-Hong, who plays Cypher, is also the martial arts director for this film, and these set pieces, often in slow motion, are exciting and nicely executed.

The weak point of the script for me is the lack of decisiveness on which particular relationship forms the main story line of the film. Whilst they are all integral to each other, they seem to fight for screen time, leaving the role of Cyon to seem more of a side character. The background to R and Noma’s relationship is omitted entirely, leaving you to wonder why these two men are friends at all and what binds them together in spite of R’s temperamental moods and aggressive behaviour. Indeed, it is Noma’s role that often seems to be more developed than R’s and holds more interest.

Overall, the film suffers from having too many themes rather than too little making it confusing at times. Perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention, but I found it more understandable and enjoyable on a second and third viewing. It is a film I would highly recommend despite its flaws, even if its just for the cinematography and production alone and simply because it’s so different from any other Korean film I’ve seen.