Natural City (2003) Movie Review

One obstacle in the way of the new South Korean sci-fi film “Natural City” isn’t the undeniable fact that its every construction is derivative of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner”, but that the film is, as a whole, inexplicable. The hero R (Ji-tae Yu) is an inexplicable jerk, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason for it. The hero’s bestfriend and boss Noma (Jeong Eun-Pyo) is inexplicably patient with his buddy, even though the buddy’s disregard for his job is getting his men killed left and right. R is inexplicably in love with his dancing cyborg Ria (Rin Seo), even though she is essentially a blank slate, with as much personality as, say, a tree branch.

“Natural City” opens in the future, where mankind resides in a sort of “second” city built on the ocean after a “war” doomed the last city. Even this minor plot point is muddy, as the “war” is mentioned in passing voiceover once and then never again. I suppose one needs to read up on the movie’s story, seeing as how the film and writer/director Byung-chun Min (“Phantom”) really doesn’t care to fill you in. As with “Wonderful Days”, most of the futuristic properties of “Natural City” exist for the sole reason of, well, existing.

But back to our plot: R is seeking to save his beloved dancing cyborg, which is scheduled to “expire” in a few days. Once expired, she must be recycled or else be labeled a “deviant”. It is the job of R and his fellow MPs, led by Noma, to track down and kill these deviant cyborgs. In order to save Ria, R has to seek out human Cyon (Jae-un Lee) so he can use her for a secret neural transfer that will be performed by an outlaw scientist named Dr. Giro. Unbeknownst to R, a supersoldier cyborg named Cypher is also looking for Cyon.

Needless to say, the other big problem with “Natural City” is the existence of “Blade Runner”. Without Scott’s movie, “Natural City”, although it wouldn’t be a seminal work of sci-fi by any stretch, it would certainly have been a good entry. Alas, “Blade Runner” does exist, and so does Deckard and renegade cyborgs led by Roy Batty. As such, “Natural City” feels old and dated. Of course the fact that it features a hollow script that stacks one inexplicable plot point on top of another doesn’t help matters. Why is R obsessed with saving Ria? Why is Noma obsessed with saving R? Your guess is as good as mine, because “Natural City” offers no explanations whatsoever.

One way to make “Natural City” better is to make Noma the hero and R the bestfriend instead of the other way around. Unfortunately Noma is relegated to side duty, coming and going as the plot dictates, while the audience is forced to sit through R’s moody indifference when it comes to creating a slightly sympathetic character. Not only is R a jerk with few redeemable qualities, but he’s also stupid to boot. Had the script informed us why Noma was so hell bent to save R, or why R is so obsessed with a piece of plastic with no personality, there might have been some measure of salvation to be found.

But don’t give up on “Natural City” just yet. The film climaxes with a 30-minute set piece that takes place within a complex where cyborgs are created. Cypher has taken over the complex with the help of a female cyborg accomplice, and the duo starts to churn out their own personal army of supersoldier cyborgs to battle the MPs. Of course R isn’t there to lend a hand because, being the self-absorbed jerk that he is, he ignores his bestfriend’s call for aid. R does eventually join the fray, but only after Noma’s men have been wiped out and Noma is on his deathbed. It’s for dramatic effect, doncha know.

Had there been a reversal of roles, with Jeong Eun-Pyo’s Noma as the leading man and the hapless R as the bestfriend gone astray, “Natural City” might have worked. As it stands, the film is merely visually pleasing, but even that little treat is mired by its nearly identical resemblance to the look and feel of “Blade Runner”. To top it off, it’s always raining here, too! As with “Blade Runner”, the skyline is dotted with floating bulletin boards that broadcast holographic advertisements and the streets are jammed with neon dancing bars and food stands.

Taken on its own merits, “Natural City” has a lot to look at, but not much to behold. With glossy and expensive high-tech films like “Yesterday” and “Lost Memories” having already appeared in previous years, “City” just isn’t all that impressive. Even for action junkies, “Natural City” won’t satisfy completely. There are three action scenes and two are limited — with the exception of the lengthy climax. The problem is that Byung-chun Min employs too many camera tricks, and as a result the fights and gun battles look choppy and messy. There’s also an abundant use of fast-forwarding and slow motion, similar to what the Wachowski brothers did on “The Matrix”. But after three “Matrix” movies that used this very same technique ad nauseam, is seeing the technique used extensively in one more movie really necessary?

“Natural City” is not a lost cause by any stretch. If one comes into it without knowing anything about sci-fi cinema, and ignorant of the seminal sci-fi work that is 1982’s “Blade Runner”, then “Natural City” could very well impress. Alas, they don’t call a work “seminal” for no reason.

Byung-chun Min (director) / Byung-chun Min (screenplay)
CAST: Ji-tae Yu …. R
Jae-un Lee …. Cyon
Rin Seo …. Ria
Jeong Eun-Pyo …. Noma

Buy Natural City on DVD