Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Natural City

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

NATURAL CITY

6/10

(South) Korea 2003 : MIN Byung-Chun : 112 mins

Natural City is a breezily confident cobbling-together of elements from cultish tech-noir forebears: most obviously Blade Runner, but with significant elements of The Matrix, Aliens and far-eastern genre-entries such as the similarly sepia-foggy Avalon. Catching up with it in the summer of 2004, however, it’s hard not to think of a current Hollywood variant on similar themes: Alex Proyas’s I, Robot. Except this time it’s more a case of “My Robot”, as the central relationship in writer-director Min’s script is between a renegade special-forces cop known only as “R” (Yoo Ji-Tae) and Ria (Rin Seo), an alluring “doll” cyborg whose chips are just about to expire.

Yoo ... oo7?Desperate to somehow prolong the life of his “girlfriend”, R tracks down renegade scientist Dr Giro (Jeung Eun-Pyo) who has developed a means of transferring the contents of an electronic “brain” such as Ria’s into a human “host”. R identifies feisty street-scavenger Cyon (Jae Un-Lee) as a suitable “container” – unsurprisingly Cyon isn’t too keen on the idea. Adding further complications is renegade warrior-cyborg Cyper (Doo-Hong Jung), whose clandestine alliance with Dr Giro threatens dire consequences for all…

As this synopsis indicates, there’s no shortage of “renegades” running around in this grandiose but   somewhat chaotic vision of the year 2080, yet another dystopian future dominated by nefarious, DNA-obsessed megacorporations and policed by quasi-fascistic heavily-armed goons. As so often with this type of picture, the dialogue tends towards the jargon-heavy, needlessly complex end of things, and much of the narrative remains frustratingly opaque.

But Min puts every cent of what’s clearly a hefty budget up on screen, and audaciously punctuates his numerous slam-bang action set-pieces (there’s an interminable one-on-one bloody slugfest late on) with some strikingly lower-key scenes where melancholy emotions come to the fore. And he makes excellent use of one particular set – a ruined ‘goddess’ statue perched spectacularly high above the city – for which art-director Cho Hwa-Seong deserves particular credit. That said, Cho’s reach seems to have exceeded his budgetary grasp – in a nice touch, the end titles feature several of his ‘concept’ sketches, not all of which found their way into the finished product.

What we do see, however, more than makes up for the deficiencies in the plot. The most obvious of which is the fact that Ria – around whom nearly all of R’s actions revolve – doesn’t seem to possess much in the way of personality, and it would have made more sense if he’d tried to transfer Cyon’s all-business personality into Ria’s sexy body rather than the other way around. That said, Yoo is a notably charismatic presence   – and he’s much better suited by this action-man role than his smirking, sedentary OLDBOY villain. Indeed, so nimbly does he switch from mano-a-mano combat to romantic entanglements and back that in an ideal world he’d surely be “natural” casting as the next 007.

27th September, 2004
(seen 19th August : Cameo Edinburgh : press show – Edinburgh Film Festival)

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by Neil Young