January 23, 2014

Natural City (2003)

This is hell of a fun movie. Natural City is a Korean sci-fi action flick, boasting buckets of CGI backgrounds, slow-motion kung fu gunfights and impassioned melodrama. It's set in the near future, where the rich are heading off to off-world colonies and the poor are living out what life they can in the rain-slicked, neon-lit streets of a huge expansive city.

That all might sound a little familiar to you. Never mind. The film is based around a police officer employed to kill rogue cyborgs who - with an artificially induced shortened life-span - tend to go a little crazy in the final days before their de-activation. This too may sound a little bit like you've seen it before.

Okay so here’s the deal: Natural City is, for all intents and purposes, the Korean remake of Blade Runner. I use the word ‘remake’ rather than ‘homage’ deliberately. This is not simply a case of one film heavily inspiring or influencing the other. As far as Natural City and Blade Runner are concerned even individual shots and scenes are damn-near identical. Sure, the plot is slightly different and there are a bunch of neat new ideas thrown in, but this is not a film that can deny its pedigree – not while keeping a straight face anyway.

This doesn’t negate the worth of Natural City, of course. What it lacks in originality it more than makes up for by simply being as Korean as it possibly can. South Korean cinema has always been highly emotionally charged, bordering on melodrama, and Natural City doesn’t disappoint in this regard. The production design is also top-notch, often feeling like you’re watching a live-action anime. It boasts the sort of action scenes you only really see in Asia too. Basically if you imagine watching a new version of Ridley Scott’s classic film, where all of the sets are replaced with glossy, well designed CGI, where all of the cast speak Korean and where Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer know kick-ass kung fu, then you’ve got a pretty accurate picture of Natural City in mind.

The film is writer/director Min Byeong-cheon’s follow-up to the highly successful 1999 thriller Phantom: The Submarine, and to date they are the only films Min has directed. Natural City was a box office failure on release, its distributor unsure whether to market it as a science fiction film or a romance. It would be an awful shame if the failure of this film has scuttled his career, since I think he shows an enormous amount of promise.

Korean popular cinema has been going through something of a renaissance over the past decade and a half, and that’s good to see. There is such a rich and distinct melodramatic tone to these films to which I really respond. Natural City is no exception.

This review was originally published at Eiga: Asian Cinema.

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