Wednesday 11 June 2008

Natural City (2003)

It's patently obvious from moment one that this Korean science fiction movie is seriously influenced by Blade Runner, so the question is whether it stands on its own as a film or not. That's a good question and just as Blade Runner brings new answers and new questions with every viewing, this may just do the same. The questions all have to do with what constitutes life: how we tell the difference between what is alive and what isn't; and if we can't tell the difference, why are we obsessed with trying to tell the difference?

Blade Runner addressed this like no other science fiction film. Deckard hunts cyborgs but falls in love with one. Beyond all the questions tied to that, the question that is never asked but always implied as whether Deckard himself is a cyborg. The same questions begin at moment one here because the relationship is already there and about to end, due to the built in expiration date of cyborgs, here called dolls.

R is an MP and apparently the best. MPs are highly trained and responsible for fighting renegade cyborgs, like the ones we see early on that have infiltrated a medical centre that stores human DNA registration. However R has fallen in love with a cyborg called Ria and she has only a few days left before expiration. He's desperate to save her before it's too late and has enlisted an intriguing character called Dr Giro to work a neural transplant. This won't technically the save the cyborg but will transfer everything that Ria is internally into a human body of a young girl those brain matches, thus extending the expiration date to that of a human lifespan.

There are plenty of questions here and plenty of plot threads that dance around the issue. Some of it is subtle and intriguing, some of it is a little hamfisted and this alternation between greatness and lack of greatness applies to so much in this film. Writer and director Byung-chun Min plays with us throughout, leading us to various assumptions, some from moment one, some later on, but which prove real to very different degrees. The neural transplant concept isn't just being used by R, but by others for very different reasons, all of which play with the same concept of what is real, what is alive, what is human.

Some of these plot directions are just awesome and inspire admiration, others much less so. Similarly, the action sequences are alternatively blisteringly gorgeous and intensely annoying. There's an insane amount of MPs shooting each other by accident in fast and tight combat situations, leading us to wonder why these elite soldiers are deemed so elite. There's also a huge amount of Matrix style action that attempts to make very quick sequences trackable but while some of it works wonderfully, much of it doesn't. Maybe I should watch a couple more times to see how it stands up to deeper scrutiny.

Outside the story, what stood out was the casting. Ji-tae Yu as R and Chang Yun as Noma, his boss, are very effective, and Doo-hong Jung, who also choreographed the martial arts sequences, is a great renegade cyborg, but it's the women who really stand out. Ria is Rin Seo, who is highly believable both as human and cyborg. She has the highly difficult task of playing someone who is not real but who knows exactly when she is going to die, and she does a very good and subtle job. Best of all to my eyes is Jae-un Lee who plays Cyon, the young prostitute whose body is needed by so many, though not for the reason she would ever have intended. I'd be very interested to see her in other different roles.

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