“Natural City” – A.J. Hakari

I’ve found that the most intriguing visions of the future in movies are those not too off from our own current state. So many sci-fi flicks weigh themselves down by going overboard on futuristic elements (I’m talking to you, Ultraviolet) when the best approach would be to mix the elements of the present with that of the director’s imagination of a world yet to come. That way, the audience has some footing in reality without sacrificing enjoying any cool ideas the filmmakers would have to share. Natural City is one such film. This is a Korean slice of sci-fi/noir that will inevitably draw comparisons with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner on a number of different grounds, but, in the end, it stands on its own as a damn intriguing genre import.

 

The year is 2080. Much of the world looks a bit worse for the wear following what I presume to be World War III, but society functions well enough to get by. Huge advances have also been made in the field of technology, particularly in the production of cyborgs, humanoid robots who serve specific roles and expire after three years of service. But the line between man and machine is about to get blurred when a former combat cyborg named Cyper (Doo-hong Jung) shows signs of igniting a potential cyborg rebellion. R (Ji-tae Yu) is one of the officers assigned to help prevent Cyper from achieving his goals, but complicating the situation is his love for Ria (Rin Seo), a cyborg whose lifespan is shortening but who may be saved by a newly-discovered mind transference process — into a human subject. But when he learns that the ideal candidate for the operation, a street girl named Cyon (Jae-un Lee), is also being targeted by Cyper for similar reasons, R finds himself torn between his duties to quell a potential cyborg uprising and putting his job on the line to save the love of his life.

 

As I mentioned earlier, Natural City is very much reminiscent of Blade Runner. Its noirish atmosphere (rain-drenched streets, trenchcoat-clad antiheroes), outlook on the future, and cyborg-centered storyline will undoubtedly bring up more than a few memories of that cult sci-fi classic. Still, Natural City remains its own tale, conveying its own themes and telling its own story with more depth and thoughtfulness than the average science fiction movie you’d find haunting multiplexes. Most thought-provoking are the story’s meditations on the relationship between man and machine by exploring the possibilities of what would happen if technology reached such an advanced level that true emotional connections were forged with realistic objects that are still essentially robots designed to make you feel however you want.

 

Writer/director Byung-cheon Min certainly sets the right environment for such an introspective genre film, focusing not so much on reminding viewers they’re viewing a story set in the future — but more on building up the doomed lives of the characters enough so that we care what happens to them. The actors’ performances are almost perfectly in step with this hushed, quiet atmosphere, especially in the case of players like Rin Seo, whose turn as the dying cyborg Ria is filled with more convincing sadness than one would expect. This philosophical approach is what provides the meat-’n'-potatoes of Natural City, although it doesn’t always interweave consistently with the film’s more “popcorn” mentality. The film has a tendency to reflect upon its characters for long stretches of time, only to occasionally hint that some amped-up action sequences are on the way. This is more of an annoyance than anything, getting the viewer’s hopes up for an action-packed romp only to deliver more drama. Also, the relationship between R and fellow officer Noma (Chang Yun) doesn’t rise much too far above the level of your average buddy cop movie, standing out as one of the few detrimental character interactions in a film that finds its strength in such a realm.

 

But on the whole, Natural City does an excellent job of delivering a believable enough view of the fairly-distant future while, most importantly, ensuring that the plot remains fresh and fascinating. It’s nothing visionary or mind-blowing, but after sitting through dull sci-fi duds including the likes of Doom and Aeon Flux, I’m pleased to see that films like Natural City haven’t completely thrown the idea of incorporating a good story out the window.

 

Rating: ★★★☆

 

-A.J. Hakari

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