Many of South Korean cinema’s current strengths (concept, character, structure) have strangely deserted it in big budget productions, and the dark, dystopian “Natural City” is no exception. Sophomore pic by writer-director Min Byeong-cheon (“Phantom, the Submarine,” 1999) crashed and burned at the box office within days of its release in late September, partly due to a bungled marketing campaign which swung between two extremes — a scifi action drama a la “Blade Runner” and a fanciful futuristic romance. Offshore, however, this still has considerable potential as a cult ancillary title and late-night fest attraction.
Unlike other recent Korean bombs, such as the promising “Yesterday” and irredeemable “Resurrection of the Little Match Girl,” both of which suffered from lack of producer control, “Natural City” was remolded following previews, with considerable trimming. Final result, though flawed by a weak central relationship, at least has a strong personality of its own and doesn’t tarry. When it works, it works well on a genre level.
Time is 2080, when the world is a collection of urban states linked by online technology centered in Mecaline City, a cross between Gotham and Hong Kong, and run by a conglom called Neucom. Genetic engineering has created a race of cyborgs, some of which (the combat models) have turned bad. So far, so familiar.
The authorities dispatch a commando task force, under Noma (Yun Chan), to wipe out a group of combat cyborgs, led by Cypher (ace action choreographer Jeong Du-hong), who’ve taken over a center where human DNA is stored. In a tightly cut, stygian action sequence, one of the commandos, R (Yu Ji-tae, from “Attack the Gas Station!”), faces off against Cypher but accidentally lets him escape.
R has his own problems. He’s in love with Ria (Seo Rin, from “Road Movie”), a dancer cyborg who has only three days left in her life cycle. R wants to quit the force and take a shuttle to Koyo, the “planet of rebirth where memories are forgotten.” He’s also in the beams of a tough little street urchin called Sion (Lee Jae-eun), a human who’s been implanted with cyborg memories.
Unfortunately for Sion, R only wants to use her body as a receptacle for Ria’s main chip, thus prolonging Ria’s “life.” And Cypher, whose batteries are also running down, wants to transfer his own artificial intelligence to Sion. Both are separately aided by Dr. Giro (Jeong Eun-pyo), an unlicensed cyborg manufacturer for hire.
Events culminate in the pic’s action highlight, a long, knock-down-drag-out battle between R and Cypher in Neucom’s control center, with a self-destruct mechanism ticking away.
In many respects, the movie’s super-tight editing works against it. Much of the tangled plot is only evident on a second viewing. Also, several side characters are thinly drawn, adding to the feeling that a whole heap of backstory never made it to the screen. Central fault of the film, however, is the relationship between R and Ria: No explanation is given for the commando’s deep attachment to the cute but blank cyborg. Only Lee (“Fin de Siecle”), as the tough but soft-centered Sion, manages to carve a role that’s emotionally involving.
Yu is OK as R, but is often overshadowed by Yun as his older boss. The villains fare better, with Jeong Du-hong all focused evil as the matchless Cypher and Kim Hyo-seon making a brief but galvanizing appearance as a sexy combat cyborg. Adding some welcome humor is Go Ju-heui as Ami, Noma’s ditzy distaff assistant.
Fight sequences by Jeong Du-hong, combining old-fashioned slugging with martial arts, are effectively visceral, and costumes run the spectrum from heavy black combat gear to more sensual futuristic duds for the women (apart from Sion’s glad-rags). Production design is standard dystopia, mixing rainy street scenes with metallic interiors.
Pic is the first South Korean production to be shot on Super-35 and wholly digitized during post-production. Visual f/x range from good to fuzzy, with the latter fitting the film’s more fanciful, romantic side. Sequences in which Hong Kong doubles for Mecaline City are rather obviously different in flavor, and match ill with others lensed around Busan.