The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
Scholarship & Awards Banquet -
BOTS ON THE RUN. Byung-Cheon Minís Natural City offers cyborg action to sci-fi fans. (Images courtesy of Tartan Films)
From The Asian Reporter, V17, #10 (March 6, 2007), page 13 & 16.
Like Blade Runner without all that bothersome thinking
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
Byung-Cheon Minís 2003 science-fiction film Natural City seems a lot like Ridley Scottís 1982 sci-fi classic, Blade Runner, at least superficially. Minís film lacks the underlying philosophical questions and moral ambiguity of Blade Runner, however, as it makes a few stabs at symbolism that suggest a deeper theme, but ultimately falls short of its closest cinematic cousin. There are still elements of Minís movie to enjoy, to be sure, and those who wished for more action from Blade Runner will be happy to hear that Natural City depends far more on the action-laden scenes typical of mainstream science fiction movies.
As in Scottís film, Natural City features a rebellious cop who tracks down dangerously malfunctioning cyborgs, falling in love with a cyborg in the process. The setting is an indeterminate future time, when cities have become both sprawling and rigidly class divided, and the souls of most people seem too distant for human contact. But there the comparison ends, as Natural City turns its attention towards the cyborg hunt, giving short shrift to any deeper thematics or complex thought.
Ji-tae Yoon plays the rebellious cop, R, suspected of illegally selling the chips of the malfunctioning cyborgs he kills. But R does not have profit in mind ó he wants to use the chips to save his beloved Ria (Seo Rin), a pleasure cyborg who is about to expire. This romance settles uncomfortably in the center of the plot, creating emotions rich in potential, but which end up largely disregarded.
R intends to bring Ria with him to Koyo, the "planet of rebirth," a destination advertised by the huge luxury space liner Muyoga, which flies overhead at various points in the film. On Koyo, the commercials say, people forget all their memories and live without reminiscence or pain. Memory becomes an often-repeated word, but its meanings never coalesce into a thematic whole; we never know if R is running from his memories, or if it is Ria, or why. And so little of Ria is seen that one cannot tell if Rís feelings for her are real or based on the fantasies she is programmed to create.
The action centers on a group of renegade military cyborgs, led by Cyper (Doo-hong Jung), a super-cyborg bent on locating a certain DNA pattern. R and his superior Noma (Chang Yun) get glimpses of Cyperís motives, which tie into Dr. Giro, an insane roboticist, and a street girl named Cyon (Jae-un Lee). As Noma gets closer to the truth, he sees that Giro, R, and Cyon are all tied into Cyperís mad quest. The resulting climax and denouement is little more than a flurry of activity that ties up superficial loose ends, leaving unanswered the deep central questions of the film.
The style of the film is similarly disconnected, segueing roughly between the gritty future realism that permeated Blade Runner and the syrupy emotions and overacting that come with juvenile Japanese anime, sometimes within the very same scene. Cyon herself alternates between tough, sympathetic heroine and romantically obsessed saccharine schoolgirl, the latter swiftly undercutting any depth that Lee brings to the character.
This doesnít mean that Natural City is without merit, and there are many who will enjoy the action sequences and the tidbits of philosophy that strain to emerge. Director and writer Byung-Cheon Min gave himself many opportunities for the latter, but they are ultimately subsumed into the action-adventure plot, making them seem like useless ornamentation.
Deriding a science fiction movie for failing to be philosophical may seem like fretting that a VW Beetle canít outrun a Maserati, but movies such as Blade Runner prove that exciting action can combine with unsettling themes to produce a classic film. Natural City has many admirable aspects, though it ultimately falls short of leaving any enduring mark on Asian film. The production values are high, and the acting sometimes gripping, but the end result feels less like a film classic than a manga comic straining to fill the unaccustomed dimensions of the big screen.
For all its faults, Natural City is still the best-looking, best-made science fiction film to come out of South Korea, and one hopes that Byung-Cheon Min will learn from its shortcomings to produce even further-reaching films in the future.
Natural City is available on DVD. To learn more about Tartanís Asian film offerings, visit <www.tartanfilmsusa.com>.