The year is 2080. The last Great War left a city destroyed and now stands a new metropolis, in an ocean that seems far from any other civilization on the planet. The advances of technology have allowed scientists to develop cyborgs that are capable of emotion, with Artificial Intelligence and strength higher than that of any man. There is a setback to this, however; the cyborgs only have a short lifespan and are set to expire after a few years.
In an attempt to prolong their life, a group of combat cyborgs attack the Neucom genetics research centre. The MP's are called in to action, led by Noma (Yoon Chan) whose mission along with his team and top man, R (Yoo Ji-tae) is to destroy the renegade cyborgs.
Unbeknownst to Noma, R has been stealing AI chips from dead cyborgs and selling them on the black market, his reason - to save his dying lover, Ria (Seo Rin) who is just days away from shutting down. With Noma investigating the case and R keeping his activities under wraps, it's only a matter of time before things begin to escalate between them. Time is running out for everyone.
Those of you who know your Sci-Fi will probably be thinking that there is an air of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner in here. Well, to get comparisons out of the way first - yes there is. Director, Min Byung-chun acknowledges that the aforementioned classic which helped shaped the way for many a Sci-Fi feature influenced his choices for Natural City.
For the record, Blade Runner is my all time favourite science fiction film so it would be easy for me to go on and on about the content and similarities between the two. I don't think that I need to though. All over the world, ideas are swapped and reworked for other features - America does it, Asia does it, huge blockbuster remakes seem to crop up more than ever these days. Whilst I wouldn't call Natural City a direct remake of Blade Runner I would say that it heavily borrows ideas from it.
I can also say that this actually isn't a bad thing because the film has a great look to it with sprawling cityscapes that are very reminiscent of Scott's visionary masterpiece, as are the flying police cars and neon-lit, rainy streets. Credit when credit's due, Natural City is the finest looking South Korean, science fiction film to date, even if it does tend to get carried away with itself by overindulgence at times.
Natural City had been highly anticipated for over a year with a lot of money being invested and its production taking up most of 2002. The high budget shows and the production values are up there with many a Hollywood feature. Unfortunately looks aren't everything and the film rests on a wafer thin storyline with too many plot discrepancies, dull characters and a tendency to forget what it's trying to say.
The problem with Natural City, like every other Korean Sci-fi is its lacklustre writing. From the opening of the film we are told that there was a great war but are given no explanation as to what it was or why it happened, all we know is that now there is a huge city in the middle of an ocean. The biggest mystery about the film is its main characters of focus, the strangely named R and his girlfriend Ria. We are led to believe these two are in love but looking at them together you begin to wonder what the hell they see in each other. R is a moody, arrogant officer who steals, gets into pub fights and will even go so far as to raise his hand to the girl he is trying to save. Ria on the other hand is a cyborg with all the personality of a bread roll - a dancer who worked at the club in which R frequents and now sits at home with a permanent blank expression on her face, uttering hardly any lines. At no point are we given an insight into their past relationship, how they met or what they mean to each other so their relationship ends up coming across as unlikely and confusing.
Another problem with characterisation is that R's supposed friend and comrade, Noma is left to play second fiddle to R's annoying, moody and temperamental figure. The character of Noma is far more interesting than R. He may not generate any more sympathy but he seems to be more of a hero figure then our main protagonist. Another conundrum is why Noma even bothers talking to R, because the guy is, in simple terms an asshead and yet time again Noma is putting himself out in this unlikely relationship. Because we have no back story we're left to ponder as to why R has any friends in the first place.
The choice to place an unsympathetic, stupid and unliveable hero in the foreground is a bad move and a general rule in film making of what not to do. A bunch of other characters come and go, not least of all Cyon (Lee Jae-eun) who's eyes we see much of the story through and who's body R needs to make his girlfriend better - what a guy! In terms of bad guys we get Cypher (Jeong Do-hong yet again playing a silent character who fights well) and his female assistant, both of whom have sod all to do and don't take up much screen time.
At close to two hours the film has a reasonable pace with some dragged out moments and only a few huge set pieces. From the beginning it promises more in terms of action but quickly settles down to continue its story, or what there is of it. Until the next action scene you must sit in disbelief as R runs around being an idiot or wait until Noma appears to give the film a bit more credibility. Although the story isn't particularly engaging, I found myself sitting through it without getting too restless and I don't doubt that it would please many folk out there who are after a no brainer Sci-Fi flick.
Back to the action, there are several key scenes that can be used as reference to something that we have all seen before in the likes of not only USA productions but also South Korean films such as Volcano High, with its spinney, watery fights or 2009: Lost Memories with its quick editing techniques. Natural City works well enough and shows a little more flair in its action than 2009: Lost Memories or Yesterday did. It's just too bad that these are too few and far between for those who were expecting more from the film's original teaser trailer. Again, the CGI is put to good use and blends very well so overall there are no major complaints in terms of style.
Save for one or two pieces composer, Lee Jae-jin provides a forgettable score that generally doesn't seem to fit that well within the film. On many occasions it sounds too schmaltzy or simply not grand enough for the bigger scenes, lacking in punch it feels uninspired. A good score should be able to strike up emotion but this fails to do so, even at times when we should be sympathising with a character it doesn't hit the right notes but again the fact that the characters are practically non-existent does not help in the least.
Lastly and briefly, the acting. I don't have any real complaints with the acting as such, more about the characters themselves. Yoo Ji-tae is a capable actor, no denying that but here he is given a worthless role and you can't help but feel nothing for his plight. His part is badly written but saying that he does a decent job in conveying his character's attitude as best as he can do, at least he does a good job in convincing the viewer that he is a bit of a git.
Seo Rin is given nothing do. Her part consists of lounging around counting the days go by. I could understand feeling upset and weak but it seems a waste to use so many shots of her with a permanent look of depression on her face, particularly seeing as it doesn't make the viewer care any more about her character. The time would have been better spent had we been able to see into her past and given a better idea of why R cares about her so much and likewise with his character.
Yoon Chan has a better part throughout and is a well rounded, likable character that wastes his time bothering with R merely because he is convinced that he will return to normal after Ria dies. So we're led to believe that R is like this because of Ria but there is no proper understanding.
Lee Jae-eun does what she can but again no insight into her character is offered. We're supposed to feel for a girl who prostitutes herself but plants flower seeds in the day time?
Jeong Do-hong as Cypher doesn't have much to do. We know his motivations but he never takes time out to explain what he's doing, as he keeps silent with only one or two lines in the entire film. Incidentally the actor also choreographed the fight scenes. I just wonder when he'll get a decent starring role to showcase his talent.
Jeong Eun pyo is Dr. Giro, who under horrible prosthetic make-up builds cyborgs. He fleets in and out of the story but isn't of any particular interest, so in all it's a case of putting up with the characters and actors who don't have much to play off.
This review is taken from the KD Media two-disc LE Tin DVD. The limited edition set is actually not very special. All you get in terms of packaging is a poor tin slip case, very similar to the one that came with the R1 edition of Terminator 2.
Presented at 2.35:1 with Anamorphic Enhancement this is a fine transfer, often looking excellent but soft in some places. Colours are strong and there is slight grain in scenes which may be down to the negative.
English subtitles are optional and are very good quality with no noticeable grammatical errors.
Audio options are Korean Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, having not heard the DTS I can only say that the 5.1 track is more than sufficient.
Note - There are no subtitles.
On disc one you will find a directors commentary, cast and crew biographies and trailers.
Disc two is split into two segments with "In the Frame" offering The Story of Natural City (24 minutes of behind the scenes footage, with interviews), a 45-minute documentary featuring on-set material, 4 deleted scenes, 3 short interviews with Yoo Ji-tae, Yoon Chan and Seo Rin and Keywords of Natural City which explains the techno babble used in the film.
"Out of the Frame" consists of a 20 minute location report with director Min Byung-chun and actor, Yoon Chan. The World of Natural City is a 13 minute feature about the CG used in the film with a look at its gadgets, Making of Title Logo is exactly that and runs for 8 minutes while the Cannes Promo is a two minute trailer for the film with American voiceover man. Finally we have three galleries and an Easter Egg that allows you to check out the DVD credits or watch a 7 minute music video.
Despite us having seen it before in more notable classics of the genre Natural City is a partial success thanks to its visuals. Letting down what could have been a great film is the lazy script with the only plus being that it's better than every other live-action South Korean Sci-Fi film to date.