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Natural City (2003)

Bill Gibron

They say imitation is the most valid form of adulation. If that's the case, then Ridley Scott and The Wachowski Brothers must be drowning in the sycophancy of this 2003 South Korean science fiction film.

Natural City

Director: Byung-chun Min
Cast: Ji-tae Yu, Rin Seo, Jae-un Lee
Distributor: Tartan Video
Studio: Jowoo Entertainment
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2006-04-18
Amazon affiliate

Post-millennial sci-fi seems stuck in a triumvirate of self-referential styles. Whether it's mimicking Star Wars, borrowing from Blade Runner, or working the wire-fu from The Matrix, most modern speculative cinema can't find an original voice in which to sell its futurism. While these filching filmmakers may argue that there is more homage than plagiarism in their motion picture pilfering, the sad fact is that most big screen speculative brave new worlds are caught in a creative rut. Being inspired by those who came before you is indeed a filmic rite of passage. But to steal as blatantly as director Byung-chun Min does in his 2003 era epic, Natural City, mandates a whole new category of cribbing.

One of South Korea's biggest box office hits (and now available on DVD from Tartan Video), Natural City is a very intriguing idea handled like a highlight reel from the director's favorite films. Revolving around a strangely segmented society far off in the technological future, we get a Blade Runner replicant retread storyline � an elite force of police officers must stop a group of androids from continuing their seemingly motiveless killing spree � and an overindulgence in the slow mo martial arts that made the Wachowskis' computer-imposed ride so special. As a result, Natural City is a mess, a movie that is visually stunning, but one that constantly stumbles over its own ambitions.

Not solely content with taking on the idea of artificial intelligence and human interaction, Natural City has to toss in a little post-apocalyptic prostelitizing and a senseless love story about a type-A personality officer falling for a failing cybernetic stripper. R (Ji-tae Yu) � as he is called throughout the film � is desperately in love with robot Rai (Rin Seo), and is trying to seek a human "donor" for his lover's personality "essence". He stumbles upon waif/prostitute Cyon (Jae-un Lee), and it turns out she is the perfect match for an evil doctor's unlicensed experiments. Byung-chun then tosses in some obligatory nods to nature, a completely formulaic rivalry between R and his strong willed Captain, and lots of CGI shots of virtual reality rest centers, flying cars, and robotic recycling plants.

All of which makes this movie both joyful and jarring. There is no doubt that Byung-chun has an eye for the visual. There are several striking set pieces in Natural City; these are times when the images are so engaging you wish they were part of another film. This is especially true of the abandoned title territory: devastated by nuclear holocaust, the ruins of this once mighty metropolis now hide Cyon's secret graveyard, where she buries fallen friends within the shadow of a once gorgeous goddess statue. The composition of rotten, decaying concrete alongside gorgeous flora and fauna really underlines the director's theme of man versus nature. The only problem is, the script can't begin to sell the ideas that the imagery can.

Indeed, R's romance with the robot appears to be an almost ancillary side story, a way of getting us to and from the major action sequences. When R battles the 'droid rebels, he does so to secure black market parts that he can use to forward his mad scientist friend's personality experiments. When he chases after Cyon through the flooded streets of Natural City, it's again to secure a host for his inhuman paramour. As the catalyst for all the battle ballets and overcranked gun fights, Rai is an incredibly routine rationale. Given very little to do except look sad and stiff, actress Rin Seo never once convinces us that there's a motive for manipulating R's emotions so.

As a matter of fact, the main problem with this movie is the lack of a deep emotional connection between R and Rai. Oh sure, it's discussed endlessly. Everyone comments with slack-jawed disbelief when they learn the maverick MP is cohabitating with a cyborg. They argue about the lunacy of shacking up with a machine that will eventually go offline and be reduced to a pile of rumble in an industrial recycling bin. But R is so committed in this irrational relationship that he violates every law on the books: he kills people who would stand in his way and undermines the efforts of his fellow police officers to control and correct the problems within the robot community. For some unspoken reason, R is waging this war for himself and his plasticine lady love.

But there are no sparks between them, no chemistry in the casting or in the coupling. Ji-tae Yu does all his acting from his toothy smile upward. Wearing a pair of dark sunglasses that literally keep him at arm's length from the rest of the world, his Cheshire cat grin is supposed to hide something darker, and more desperate. But the performance here is all hubris and bravado, missing any minor notes to keep the measurable machismo front and center. Every role is underwritten, personalities sacrificed for the sake of some greater artistic aesthetic. All throughout the DVD's bonus features, director Byung-chun admits to paying far more attention to the look of the movie than the logistics of the story or the people who populate it. In his mind, sci-fi is all in the eye.

Which, of course, leads back to the primary complaint with the film. If onscreen scenic speculation is so reliant on its visuals, why blatantly borrow them from other cinematic examples? Wouldn't it make sense to try and create your own original vision of the future? Relying on successful ones from the genre's history looks sloppy, not salient. While it's possible to link many of the most vibrant visuals in the post-modern milieu to movies made before (Metropolis being a major starting point), Natural City would be far more effective with something different and new to say about our upcoming utopia. Frankly, nothing kills your status as a visionary quicker than plagiarizing someone else's vision.

That is why, ultimately, Natural City stalls. While the audience is busy picking out the obvious references, the love story and the action scenes stumble and stammer to their anticlimactic, indifferent conclusions. One in particular just sort of fades away without explanation. Instead of offering up something poignant or powerful in regards to Rai's fate, the film simply wanders away from her story, never picking it up again. Though the final images of the film are, again, exciting and quite emotional, it is not because of the context within the narrative. Like art in motion, the last shots of Natural City show that when it comes to painting pretty filmic pictures, director Byung-chun Min has a brilliant compositional eye. If he could just keep from copying others, he might end up an important figure in Eastern filmmaking. But as it stands now, he's a better follower than leader.


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