Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Camera Obscura
    by John Joseph Adams
June 2006

Do Koreans Dream of Electric Sheep?

Natural City has been dubbed "the Korean Blade Runner." But is it a bold, new vision inspired by a great film, or just another replicant?

Natural City
Jowoo Entertainment/Tartan Video
Director: Byung-chun Min
Writers: Byung-chun Min
Starring: Ji-tae Yoo, Chang Yoon, Rin Suh, Jae-won Lee, etc.
US DVD Release Date: April 18, 2006

Rated R / 113 minutes / 2003
(out of four)

Director Byung-chun Min says that Natural City was his attempt to make the first great Korean SF film. He didn't quite succeed in that lofty ambition, but he did come damn close; the film does have great directing, acting, cinematography, and special effects. Alas, the only thing it's lacking is a great, or even totally coherent, plot.

The first thing everyone will probably notice about this movie is that it's quite, shall we say...reminiscent of Blade Runner. It takes place in the year 2080, and androids have become commonplace (though the film calls them cyborgs). As is the case with Blade Runner's replicants, Natural City's cyborgs come with a short lifespan and expire after a few years.

But the similarities to Blade Runner don't end there—the look and feel of the film also draws heavily from Ridley Scott's masterwork. Which is not to say that the film is derivative trash; it's more of a loving homage, and if SF novelists can write homages to Philip K. Dick, why can't filmmakers do the same?

Natural City's protagonist, named simply "R" (Ji-tae Yoo), is a cop who's fallen in love with a cyborg girl named Ria (Rin Suh). Unfortunately, she's due to expire soon and R's not ready to lose her. He'll do almost anything to keep her alive, including stealing the AI chips from so-called "deviant" cyborgs, which he can sell on the black market so that he can afford to help extend Ria's lifespan though illicit means.

Combat cyborgs have infiltrated a medical facility where human DNA records are stored. R's unit is sent in to take back control of the facility, and they do, though it seems that the cyborgs got away with whatever information they were seeking. R, meanwhile, gets himself a new AI chip to sell. The eccentric cyborg researcher Dr. Giro has been working on a way to transfer Ria's consciouness into a new body, but it's an expensive process.

But Dr. Giro discovers that the answer to their problem is not with cyborganics-it's with organics. Dr. Giro says "Behind the cerebellum in human brains, there's a section called the L-region that composes a particular DNA sequence. And, remarkably, it's compatible with the memory chips of a cyborg." And just as remarkably, Dr. Giro knows of a young girl in the slums (who presumably wouldn't be missed) who has the same "L-region" sequence as Ria, so would be compatible for implanting Ria's memories. With this information, R goes off to find her and bring her back to Giro's clinic.

Meanwhile, R's superior officer, Noma (Chang Yoon), is onto R's illegal activities—first, his black market dealings, and then his kidnapping of the slum girl, a fortune teller named Cyon (Jae-won Lee). He arrests R for "the unlicensed production and distribution of cyborgs."

After a rather lenient punishment (which seems to have consisted entirely of forcing R to run up and down some stairs in his combat armor, in the rain), R is back out on the street, trying to figure out a way to save his Ria. But his only hope is Dr. Giro, and Dr. Giro is not simply the harmless kook he appears to be.

Made for a paltry six million, Natural City has some of the highest production values I've ever seen. The special effects and cinematography are simply stunning, and not only rival anything Hollywood has ever done, but beats most American-made fare hands down. And given how riveted I was by a film whose plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense really speaks volumes about Byung-chun Min's directing abilities.

But there are a litany of flaws that drag the film down. First of all, there are also several logical quandaries that just don't make any sense. For instance, after R kidnaps Cyon, then loses her after getting arrested, he ends up destroying her house when he goes looking for her again. Because this leaves her with no place to live, she actually agrees to stay with R until he can find the money to repay her for the destruction of her house. It was earlier established that Cyon had somewhat of a crush on R (and her fortune telling indicated that they were meant to be together or some such), but still, it's too much of a stretch. Hello? He just tried to kidnap you!

And along those same lines, some of the science seems just too hard to believe, including some of the critical cyborg-human compatibility science. Not that a lot of films have science that makes sense, but most fake it better than this one.

Another misstep was the rather curious choice of music during an otherwise spectacular climactic battle sequence. Though the action on screen was fast and furious, the score was as bland as elevator music. This was not the case throughout the rest of the film; before this point, the score seemed to fit in quite well.

This is in stark contrast to another pivotal sequence in which an intense hand-to-hand melee ensues that is totally devoid of music. As the two combatants battle it out, all you can hear is the distant wailing of an alarm klaxon. The scene is quietly powerful, and the eerie silence is potent and effective.

Alas, the bad music returns with an overlong and seemingly gratuitous end-montage. Not the best note to end on, but as far as the film's sins go, it's annoying but is one of the least egregious.

I wanted to like this movie. I really, really did. And there are a lot of things to like about it. But in the end, a film's got to be about story, and if that falls apart, then all you're left with is a beautiful mess.

DVD Extras
Available Audio Tracks: Korean (Dolby Digital 5.1), Korean (DTS 5.1)
Available Subtitles: English, Spanish
Commentary: n/a
Featurettes: "The Story of Natural City"
Misc.: deleted scenes; cast interviews; trailers
(out of four)

The "Story of Natural City" featurettes is the only real extra worth watching. It's an intriguing look behind the scenes of the making of the film, focusing on showing the lengths that the filmmakers went to to create the elaborate special effects (which were achieved via a mix of computer graphics and scale modeling).

The featurette also clearly demonstrates the obvious passion that went into the making of this film; while the cast interviews show a little more of the heart that went into the project, you'll probably get bored after watching the first one.

The deleted scenes, alas, do nothing to help the viewer make sense of the incoherencies in the plot, and so are immensely skippable.

Of the trailers included on the disc is a pretty hideous one for Natural City that makes the film look pretty but dumb, which in the end, isn't so far off the mark.

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