Posted on 5/22/10 07:05 PM
Review of Natural City (2003, Min Byeong-Cheon)
Overview: Natural City is a high priced attempt by the Korean movie industry to break into the Scifi Genre. The quality of the effects in Natural City clearly shine, both in the set pieces, the painted backgrounds and in the realistic but futuristic setting. This is a cyberpunk movie to its core, although story and character studies take precedent over high-octane action. Natural City really does have the pacing of a Korean movie though, which means there are substantially longer and repetitious character motivation scenes than people in the US are used to.
The Setting: Natural City as a title is 180 degrees from what you get in a setting - nothing is real here. In this dystopian setting, genetic engineering and cyborg development have become an accepted way of life. Cyborgs, who for some reason have an expiration date, do all sorts of functions in society - everything from being a dancer, to restaurant helper to a police force. Cyborgs are self aware, which adds major complications as they know what it means to "expire." Pretty much everyone in this city lives a miserable existence, in fact, its expected that life is pain. Vacations are taken in the equivalent of a Star Trek Holodeck type machine. The ultimate dream of everyone in this city is to become rich enough to retire to a floating hotel, which advertises that it can erase your current memory and place you in a "virtual" life of your own choosing. This is especially interesting, especially when compared to Oshii's Avalon, in which the "ultimate" life is one where you are in a simulated reality of your own mind even though your body is a slobbering mess in the "real" world.
The Story: Natural City centers on the internal struggles of a highly talented cop named "R." He is tasked with finding and capturing renegade cyborgs, but ends up falling in love with a cyborg dancer named Ria who's expiration date is only 3 days off. The movie centers on R's compromising his principles and dealing with the cyborg underworld in a vain attempt to find a way to save his Ria. He finds a shady cyborg doctor who promises that if he finds a person with the right genetic match, he can inject part of their brain cells into Ria, which will save her. The doctor finds such a match in a street girl named Cyon.
Complicating matters, R's best friend Croy, who is also his boss and fellow police detective, is on to him. During a raid to capture some renegade warrior cyborgs, Croy notices that R is not shooting them in the head (which kills them be wiping out their AI chip), but is instead going back later and collecting the AI chips to sell for money. Croy tracks R back to the shady doctor. Complicating matters further, one of the warrior cyborgs who escaped is also after Cyon for reasons that become all too apparent as the movie unwinds.
The Action & FX: Natural City is a a character exploration first, but the action and effects are on display, and in high quality. The atmosphere that comes shining through is a Blade Runner-like grimy and realistic futuristic city. This is NOT a "B" movie in any way. The settings look lived in and real. The Scifi set pieces and CG used fits wonderfully, and the artistic backgrounds add to the mood. The surround sound is not stunning, but is certainly decent and doesn't detract from the experience. The action involves both slo-mo and high speed camera shots, along with LOTS and LOTS of blood and gore. The ending especially is somewhat of a gorefest, which is wierd to see in a movie that is mostly a drama in nature.
Also, near the end of the movie, we get treated to an evil, but ultra-hot cyborg warrior chick in skin tight lycra who engages in some major ass-kicking (see below for a pic of HER ass while kicking someone!). Talk about a plus! While we're on the subject, we also get treated to some cute asian cyborg boobies at the beginning of Natural City - definitely a nice way to start the pic!
The Pacing: As I mentioned earlier, this IS a Korean movie. My wife is Korean, so I'm somewhat used to the pacing we see here. From reading a few reviews, Natural City has been panned for being way too slow and plodding in the middle. All I can say is, "Welcome to Korean Cinema." This is really a case where story telling is just different there. For a Korean, this movie is not at all slow, but has rather standard pacing, which means we get REAL in-depth and repeated scenes to get to understand the characters. Most important for Koreans is to be able to identify with the emotion and mood the characters are experiencing. Natural City takes the time to do this with all the main characters.
The characters really build in believability and engagement as the story progresses. At the beginning, R appears quite shallow, as does his friend and the street girl Cyon. By the end, all three, and especially Ria, his cyborg lover grow to be characters you really empathize with. The motivations for all become clear, including their virtues and flaws. The ending is also a rather "normal" Korean dramatic love story ending, which is to say, one very different from how an American film might end. Its not a feel-good movie, but then again, few Korean dramas are.
The Philosophy: For me, the interesting part of this movie centered on Ria, the cyborg. There are a few scenes that make it clear she "knows" what's happening to her. She is programmed to be a dancer, but as she reaches her expiration date, she no longer can do this well. In one scene, Cyon shows her the "1 day" notice that arrives in the "Fifth Element" style mail slot. As her "time" approaches, you really do get the feeling of the Rutger Hauer speech at the end of Blade Runner, although Ria is able to convey it through brief looks and images.
Bottom Line: If you like cyberpunk films, the visuals alone make this a MUST SEE. If you like character studies in science fiction settings, you probably also want to see this. I loved Natural City, but be warned, the pacing is different from what you might expect. This is a Korean movie, and certainly plays like one.