Natural City Review
Natural City is another recent Korean blockbuster to get a UK DVD release. A box office disaster in its home country, it seems that the flaws in this film aren’t simply because of any cultural differences.
The film is set in 2080, in a society much like that envisioned by authors such as Philip K. Dick, and Isaac Asimov, where robots have been created to do humans’ tasks, and as a result are superior in almost every single way.
The plot begins when a team of military police are called to investigate the actions of Cypher, a deviant cyborg that has taken over a medical centre with the help of some robotic friends. The MPs’ Aliens-esque infiltration does not go to plan, and the cyborgs show their strength as they immediately wipe out several of the MPs. This isn’t helped by the lead character R, who, clearly preoccupied, misses the chance to destroy one of the robots, and so is ordered to wait by the entrance.
We soon find out the reason why R hasn’t exactly been at the top of his game. He is in love with Ria (Seo Rin), a robotic dancer who is about to reach her expiry date. R needs to raise money to save her, and has been trying to do so by stealing electronic chips from deactivated cyborgs and selling them on the black market, even when he is meant to be doing his job. His boss Noma soon realises that something is up, and so a race against time begins, with R desperately trying to save Ria before he is arrested or killed.
One of the main problems is the back-story, or at least the lack of it. Without any insight into the past of the key characters, viewers are left with a large number of questions, few of which are answered in the film. The most frustrating are those regarding the relationships between certain characters. Firstly, there is the love story between R and Ria. How the best of the Military Police managed to end up with a soon-to-expire, dancing cyborg would no doubt have made an interesting story, yet not once is an explanation hinted at. Similarly, commanding officer Noma (Yoon Chan) briefly mentions his past friendship with R on several occasions, but we do not find out why they were friends, or why they fell out. Surely if they were at some point good friends, we would see Noma attempt to console R, or at best talk to him, instead of naively presuming he’d return to normal after Ria expired.
The second problem I have with Natural City is the character R. I’m not criticizing Yu Ji-Tae – of the two films I’ve seen him in (the other being Old Boy) he’s done an excellent job in each, but purely the character. R is obnoxious, disrespectful, and indifferent to the death of his comrades. If we’d actually found out about his past then these traits might almost be forgivable, but as it is, it’s impossible to sympathise with him. If he hadn’t been the lead character, then I might well have thought he was one of the film’s ‘bad guys’. The closest we have to a protagonist is Noma, but with so little screen time, it’s hard to care even for him.
There are of course plenty of positive things to say about the film. The sporadic action scenes are short but thrilling, although at times tainted by confusing cutting and choppy editing. In only his second feature-length film, director Min Byung-Chun has some inspired moments such as the assortment of shots of future-Korea (not dissimilar from the trademark scenes in Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express) about halfway through the film. The CGI is also very impressive, easily rivalling the best that has come out of Hollywood. The Blade Runner-esque tarnished cityscapes are convincing, as are the detailed effects during action scenes.
Even the human/android love story between R and Ria is full of potential, and if they’d explored what the futuristic society must be like if relationships with robots can be more fulfilling than those with humans, then perhaps this aspect of the film would have been more satisfying. However, as they don’t, it hardly helps R’s cause as a hero that he’s willing to kill a human to preserve the ‘life’ of Ria. What’s more, aside from a couple of touching scenes, for example when R takes Ria underwater so she’s able to dance once more, it doesn’t even seem like they have that close a relationship – R goes as far as to almost hit her at one point.
Borrowing heavily from Blade Runner, and to a lesser extent many other past sci-fi films, Natural City is by no means more than the sum of its parts, but it’s still worth a watch, especially for sci-fi enthusiasts.
Like the film, the transfer has its ups and downs. Colour and contrast levels are for the most part accurate, and do a good job highlighting brighter colours in the primarily bleak environment. However, there is a fair amount of print damage, which is quite worrying considering how recent the film is. Also, there are occasions when edge enhancement is very obvious and distracting.
Although the soundtrack isn’t exactly ambitious, the Dolby 2.0 soundtrack still leaves a lot to be desired. There is a lot of dialogue in the film, and as far as that goes, the soundtrack on the DVD is acceptable, but during the action scenes it’s lifeless and seriously lacking any punch.
With the burnt-in subtitles, Optimum have once again provided a great translation, with no errors whatsoever. Assuming that it roughly mirrors the Korean dialogue, then the translation is perfect. Unfortunately, this is completely ruined by the unnecessarily large size of the text. Two lines of subtitles take up almost a quarter of the screen, and whilst this isn’t always a problem, at times you start to wonder what you’re missing at the bottom of the screen.
Firstly, there is the Making of Natural City (23’50”). The director talks about his influences and about what he wanted to achieve. There are also contributions from the CG director, and some of the actors and actresses. The documentary does shed a little more light into the plot, but it’s still far from clear afterwards. It’s an interesting extra in that it approaches the technical side, such as showing how they filmed the action scenes, as well as discussing the plot, with the various contributors giving their own opinions.
The second extra is a Location Tour with Director Byung Chung Min (20’56”). As the title suggests, the director guides us through the various locations for different scenes. Interspersed with clips from the film, it’s quite amazing to see how well the CGI was implemented. Some of the things you might have thought were real turn out to be computer generated, and vice versa.
Finally there are four Deleted Scenes. The first, Dream (0’58”) shows R dreaming of Ria dancing – nothing we haven’t seen elsewhere in the film. The second is titled December 23rd Last Year (1’23”), as the two lovers reminisce about the time R first told Ria he loved her. It’s a pity this was cut from the film, as it adds a little bit more much-needed substance to their relationship. The third, Jealousy (2’26”) shows R and Ria eating a meal to the faint tune of what I thought I could recognise as Coco Lee’s A Love Before Time from the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon soundtrack. It then cuts to a short bit of interaction between the two main female characters, when Cyon orders Ria to get her some water. The final of the four, Soul Dubbing (1’00”) shows Noma interrogating the ‘mad professor’ type character Dr Giro. The only scene that might have been worth keeping in is the second of the four; the others were clearly cut for a reason.
There are also trailers for other Optimum Asia films including Azumi, Grave of the Fireflies, and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.
Overall, due to its love/hate nature, it’s hard to either recommend or advise against this film. If you enjoy sci-fi films then there is a good chance that this will entertain you, but others might want to give it a rent first.
5 out of 10
6 out of 10
5 out of 10
6 out of 10