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?
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
But the similarities to Blade Runner don't end therethe 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 activitiesfirst,
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
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
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.
Available Audio Tracks: Korean (Dolby Digital 5.1), Korean (DTS 5.1)
Available Subtitles: English, Spanish
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.