Judge Eric Profancik is fuzzy on how a cop falling in love with a cyborg stripper will end humanity—unless she happened to prop her bed upon the launch remote to a missile silo.
The War Has Begun
These two films immediately come to mind when you turn to watch Natural City. It's obvious to you, it's obvious to every reviewer out there, and it also had to be obvious to the filmmaker who borrowed his inspiration from these two acclaimed science fiction films. Natural City is proclaimed as the first great science fiction film from South Korea, filled with impressive visuals and effects; I eagerly put the disc in hoping for some quick and simple fun. Instead, I got something I didn't expect.
Facts of the Case
It's the year 2080 in Megacity and life is being rebuilt after a devastating war. Technology has exploded with the penultimate achievement being the creation of artificially intelligent cyborgs. Cyborgs are prevalent throughout society, doing all manner of tasks. To prevent any problems from arising from these artificial creatures, all cyborgs have an expiration date, usually three years from the day of activation. Additionally, a special police force of MPs patrols the city, quickly containing and destroying any deviant cyborgs.
R (Ji-Tae Yu, Oldboy) is an elite MP, commanded by his friend Noma (Chan Yoon, Faceless Beauty). Lately, everyone has noticed that R hasn't been acting the same, and they quickly realize he's been affected by Ria (Rin Sun, Road Movie), a cyborg he's been spending a lot of time with. Ria's programmed to be a stripper, and she's spent most of her life with R, whom is now in love with her. She only has three days left until she expires, and R is breaking all the rules to find a way to keep her alive past her expiration. While Noma and everyone else dismiss R's affection for the "doll," they don't realize it could lead to the end of civilization.
Instead of the out-and-out action film I expected, I found myself immersed in a love story. Is that a bad thing? Well, when expecting one thing and getting another, it is. But when you discard the expectations and just take the movie for what it is—no, it isn't. Natural City is far from the most original movie on the block, and, as a result, isn't the most impressive one to come around either.
Natural City contains three action sequences: one to open the movie, one to end it, and another tucked almost exactly in the middle. Each pretty much follows the same sequence of a bunch of MPs chasing deviant cyborgs, getting their butts whipped, and pulling out a quick victory in the end. Along the way, we see lots of guns shooting, cyborgs doing wire-fu, and the occasional slow motion shot to impress the viewer. Tossed in for good measure is way too much MTV-style editing where you really can't follow the action unless you're twelve and hopped-up on sugar. If directors and editors would just stop embracing this imbecilic type of storytelling and return to the "old days" of slow, played-out sequences, then we might enjoy the scenes more. If we were able to see what was going on instead of just getting impressions of action, life would be better.
The crux of Natural City is not deviant cyborgs, but deviant love. Nobody thinks R really loves Ria, but he does. It motivates his entire being to preserve the one he loves. Nothing else matters: not the law, not friendship, not even common sense. He'll risk anything and everything to save the woman he loves, even if it costs the lives of other people, including fortune teller/hooker Cyon. In a twist of fate, this non-citizen is the key to saving civilization, both socially and technologically. It's isn't R, nor Ria, nor Noma, but a deviant soldier cyborg that understands this. But R doesn't care. He must save Ria. But does Ria love R back? Can a cyborg feel love, or is it just the sum of its programming? Does she want to be saved?
To facilitate this little romance, director Byung-Chun Min (Phantom) employed special effects on a true Hollywood scale. The world of Natural City embraces the likes of Blade Runner but adds a Korean sensibility. It mixes the technology of tomorrow with the simplicity of the past. This contrast is key to the movie, to the style, and to the story. But the effects themselves are well done. Everything—from the wire-fu to flying police cars to explosions to CGI—is top notch. It's A-level effects in a B-movie.
I've seen several Tartan DVDs over the past year, and I've been impressed by their quality. Unfortunately, Natural City does not adhere to the precedent, and I found myself surprised by this. Presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic print, Natural City's video is replete with problems. The most significant are compression artifacts. They are abundant and bad, so much so that in some scenes the walls look alive. There's an odd inconsistency to the artifacts, for in some scenes filled with rain, fog, and smoke, it's perfect. In addition to artifacts there is nasty edge enhancement. Beyond the pure errors is the overall look of the film, which I'm not sure is the director's choice or not. On the whole, detail is awful. Everything appears too fuzzy, without sharpness. Maybe it's due to the special effects? Lastly, the color palettes shift around, going from strong colors to almost black and white. In a bonus item the color choice is briefly mentioned, so this isn't necessarily an error. For the audio, you get the standard Tartan options of DTS or Dolby Digital 5.1. In a simple which-is-better-world, the DTS is far superior with a richer dynamic range and more power. Unfortunately, I do have some quibbles here too, as neither track was as strong and rich as other Tartan releases.
The bonus features are limited but give enough information to get a general behind-the-scenes look at the film. Note that all of them are in Korean with English subtitles. "The Story of Natural City" (24 minutes) starts things out and is a modestly interesting featurette that is far more technically focused than on the story of the story. Next up are four Deleted Scenes (6 minutes) that add nothing back to the story. You can then sample some Cast Interviews with Ji-Tae Yoo (6 minutes), Chan Yoon (8 minutes), and Rin Sun (4 minutes) that are worth viewing once. And, rounding it all out are Trailers for Natural City, Marebito, Oldboy, Ab-Normal Beauty, Vital, and Spider Forest.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This DVD has some problems with the subtitles. There are some expected grammatical errors, with the incorrect word used here and there. But there's a bigger hiccup when it comes to the names of the women in the film. The film lists the women's names as Ria and Cyon. In the bonus materials, it's Lia and Zion. I'm not sure what's going on, but the use of Zion adds an interesting second layer to the film.
Easily the least thought-provoking or challenging Korean film I've yet seen, Natural City left me wanting more: more action and more science fiction. Discovering that this film is actually a romance was saddening, as I was craving a nice, new, mindless piece of cinematic fluff. Yet I will admit that by the end, I found myself touched by R and Ria's romance. Though she's an automaton throughout most of the film (a cyborg's mental capacity begins to wane near its expiration date), making you wonder what R may have seen in her, in the end, she finally has her moment to make the movie more worthwhile. Another scene like that at the beginning would have better established the romance.
A visually remarkable film, Natural City on DVD isn't all that it should be. Filled with errors, this one can only garner a rental recommendation—and that's only if you're in the mood for a sci-fi romance.
Natural City is hereby found guilty of misdirection. It is charged to three days in the Deckard Correctional Facility.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• "The Story of Natural City"
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