Natural City (US - DVD R1)
Blade Runner gets a South Korean override, and Gabe Powers was there...
After a brutal war has torn the world asunder, society has re-emerged with the help of nearly human cyborgs. In order to keep these free thinking tools under control, every cyborg is given a predetermined life span. When their warrantee is up they must be returned to the source for decommission. R is a solider who specializes in the retrieval of rogue cyborgs, and he's the best in his platoon. The problem is that he's fallen in love with a cyborg, Ria, that dances at the local strip club and is stealing AI chips in the vain hope of saving her life.
Natural City has been described as a modern day Korean take on Blade Runner. This is a very accurate comparison. In some ways, Natural City could even be perceived as a semi-sequel to Blade Runner, kind of like those old Marvel What If? comics. What if Dekard, after falling in love with and running away with Rachael, a replicant, had to continue his robot-hunting ways in futuristic South Korea? What if, to keep Rachael from expiring, he had to steal parts from other replicants he'd killed in the line of duty? Those of you who've seen Blade Runner may remember that the basic thrust of the story concerned self aware, human replicant androids in search of a normal life span and base normality in their lives. The replicants of Blade Runner are emotionally deeper creatures, and ultimately more 'human' than the cyborgs of Natural City, but their basic needs are very similar.
Natural City has also been described as a Korean riff on the original Matrix. This comparison is more unfounded. Perhaps Natural City could act as a sort of prequel to The Matrix, but really no more than films like Terminator and it's sequels. This comparison is most misleading because there are not Matrix levels of action in Natural City. Though there are a few spectacular set pieces, it is much more subdued, and almost sensual film. Yes, there are robots fighting humans, but the moral ambiguity the battle entails is very different.
Natural City is a movie that suffers from audience expectations and equations to different and unfairly better films. I liked the film very much, but did find it hard to get too excited about. I'm finding myself staring blankly at my computer screen often while writing this review, because the reasons for me liking the film seem so small and petty that I'm struggling to find some sort of extravagant way to describe them. When it comes down to it, Natural City is just entertaining, dramatic, and pretty enough to qualify itself as good. If you're looking for the next best thing, this probably isn't the place to look, but the view is grand anyway.
I'll go ahead and make a misleading comparison myself, to the much-maligned Japanese live action anime Casshern. Both films are most impressive in their visuals over their narratives. Both films create absolutely gorgeous digital worlds and fill them with angsty little people. Both films work better as a series of visuals than as true films.
Natural City (which was made first) has two distinct advantages over Casshern, however—fabulous actors and a palatable running time. Casshern’s actors are not bad, but cannot compete with those of Natural City, especially when direct comparisons are made between the leads. It's almost unfair to compare any average actor to South Korea's Yu Ji-tae, who most readers will remember as the antagonist of Park Chan-wook's masterpiece Oldboy. Yu can sell even the lamest story element with his subtle charm and utter command of the screen. Other actors are given less to do, in that they play semi-emotionless cyborgs, or semi-boringly honourable solders.
R's relationship with Ria, especially the way it effects his work and the lives of the humans around him is the emotional centre of the film. This is the film's strongest element, yet it threatens to over-expose it at every turn. R endangers the whole of humanity more than once in the name of his love (something I am reminded that Neo did in the second Matrix movie, so I suppose the comparisons aren't completely unfounded), actions which bring about interesting questions of morality. Yes, love truly is a beautiful thing, but is this just vicious infatuation? After all, we are not led to believe that Ria can experience love. This duality has the unfortunate effect of making R a pretty unsympathetic character, but at least a more interesting one than that of Casshern the Robot Hunter.
R's plight is further complicated when he willingly begins to pursue a secondary character in the hopes of harvesting her body for Ria's mind. After being told by a batty computer scientist that there is one DNA type that can accept a cyborg's CPU, he makes the morally reprehensible decision to hunt her down. Effectively he is willing to murder an innocent girl to preserve his love, who again, is questionably fit to fill the role. The character's constant failure and redemption is what makes the film memorable, rendering the plot twists his decisions create less interesting. Natural City’s greatest strength is essentially its greatest weakness in that I cared more about the visuals and a single character's struggle than the story line or the secondary players.
The red-blooded, testosterone flooded, Hollywood action lover in me shamelessly wanted more in the way of action set pieces. The film's action is pretty intense, and at times shockingly violent, but seeking the movie out for its action will likely leave one disappointed. If Casshern was a bland movie with a handful of occasionally inspired set pieces, Natural City is an interesting movie lacking the inspired set pieces that may have made it a masterpiece. A shallow assessment, yes, but one I'm willing to bet most viewers would agree with me on. If anything, director Min Byung-chun has better enveloped the tactile and romantic nature of a Wong Kar-wai film than the pseudo-psychological and hyperactive of the Wachoski's. It's actually a pretty good date film that way.
For such a recently minted flick, Natural City doesn't look too good. The anamorphic, 2.35:1 widescreen transfer suffers from all the ailments of a decent bootleg copy. The image is very soft; softer than even the surreal looking film has looked on some trailer's I've seen. There is a fair amount of digital blocking, low-level noise, and edge enhancement to boot. I'll admit it is hard to gage the video quality of such stylized filmmaking, but these issues seem to be compression related for the most part. This is surprising considering (again) the film's vintage, the film's budget, and Tartan USA's recent track record. Perhaps this transfer was part of the reasoning of Tartan holding the title back from its original release date.
I should note that these problems never deterred from my actual enjoyment of the film, they simply stuck out when I rechecked the discs with video and audio quality in mind.
The dual Korean tracks here, one DTS 5.1, the other Dolby Digital 5.1, are solid. Both sound roughly the same, though as per the norm the DTS track is louder. I live near the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport, and am used to the sound of passing planes. While watching Natural City I was tricked by my sound system a few times into thinking that the planes were perhaps landing on my house, as often the surround channels whir with the sound of engines not yet on screen. I figure this is probably the best compliment I can give the mix. The sound is, like the visuals, very stylized, and really comes to life during the man on machine fight scenes.
Tartan does another decent job in supplying a fair amount of extras. Though no one's going to call this an Ultimate Edition DVD, there's enough here to educate the curious on the film's origins and creation. The main feature is a making of featurette entitled ‘The Story of Natural City’. As per the norm, this seems to be more of a glorified electronic press kit than a real documentary, but there is some worthwhile stuff here. The director is pretty careful not to mention Blade Runner, and says the film stemmed from a story he read about an elderly person who committed suicide after their pet died. This makes the film's base meaning more interesting to me, leading me to believe that Ria really is more of a companion than a life partner. I appreciate this subtle insight into the creator's mindset. I also learned, among the grand spectacle of massive sets and models, that the film was conceived as an entirely computer generated picture.
The deleted scenes include a surreal dream sequence where R unmasks Ria as a different character (something that makes sense according to the plot), a conversation between Ria and R about pain, a conversation at the noodle bar in the rain (told you it was a lot like Blade Runner), a sequence where Ria try’s to avoid conversing with the character meant to be her body’s replacement, and an interrogation of the film's mad scientist. None of them are missed, but none are exactly bland either.
The disc is completed with a series of brief cast interviews (with awful audio recording), the original US trailer (which again draws comparisons to Blade Runner) and a selection of Tartan Asia Extreme trailers.
I hesitate to use the word 'derivative' when describing Natural City, but I could never accuse it of being an original work. The film's weakness comes in the form of audience expectation and critical comparisons to better work. To be fair (and maybe to prove I'm not a better critic) I've compared it to a lesser work in Casshern. Anyone interested in the film should not hesitate to see it, but should be careful to keep their expectations in check.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 18th April 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: DTS 5.1 Korean, Dolby Digital 5.1 Korean
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Extras: The Story of Natural City, Deleted Scenes, Cast Interviews, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Min Byung-Chun
Cast: Yu Ji-Tae, Jeong Du-hong, Yun Chan, Seo Rin
Genre: Action, Drama and Sci-Fi
Length: 114 minutes
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