The year is 2080, and mankind lives with realistic-looking cyborgs to take care of their needs, but some humans become too attached to their robotic companions. Cyon (Jae-un Lee), a prostitute, had her father fall for a female cyborg, something she doesn't understand. Across the city, R (Ji-tae Yun), a military policeman, is in love with Ria (Rin Seo), a pole dancing cyborg, and she has only a few days of her existence left before she is terminated. But the machines are fighting back, led by Cypher (Doo-hong Yung), a renegade who is dead against his own upcoming termination and is determined to stop it. R is part of a unit who hunt down these rebels, and he can't help but have mixed feelings about his job...
Built in obsolescence, eh? Seems like every item of electrical equipment you buy these days is designed to last just until the guarantee runs out, then "phut!" you have to buy a new one. Written by the director Byung-chun Min, Natural City has grander ideas than the sorry state of the current gadget market, and appears strangely familiar. The man in love with a cyborg, the revolution of the cyborgs, the promise of a better life on another world in another part of the galaxy - it's Blade Runner, isn't it? Only where that film meditated on what it means to be human in the vein of the Philip K. Dick novel it was based upon, Natural City is more concerned with the aching loneliness of its human characters.
All this and extravagant action sequences too. The film opens with R and Ria sitting in a computerised simulation of the paradise world they wish to live in, but it's not long before R is shooting at rogue cyborgs in the main building of the corporation which manufactures the machines - Cypher has downloaded the contents of the database for reasons as yet unknown. But really, that opening scene sets the tone more accurately than the burst of action that follows, as the pace of the film is glacial and delicate, concentrating on exquisitely designed miniatures and computer animations to render the city in all its futuristic glory and echo the characters' emotions.
Cyon is one of the underclass, and she tries to pick up R at a cafe using a fortune telling ruse, but he's not interested. He's determined to find a way of preserving Ria past her use by date, and believes that computer expert Dr Jiro will help him. Dr Jiro was sacked from the corporation, but has indeed found a way to keep the cyborgs going: by taking out their personality microchip and placing it into the skull of another cyborg - alternatively, as the robots are as close to humans as possible, another person would do. You'd think R would be a charismatic presence in the film, but he's not, he's passionless for the most part, which I suppose explains his desperation for companionship with a lifelike but soulless machine.
Ria isn't exactly a barrel of laughs either, and as she winds down like a clockwork toy she grows more blank in the face of impending doom. The film is wrapped up in a mood of melancholy, which it sustains with its careful attention to setting. Constantly the film returns to shots of the city, rain pouring on its streets, huge craft soaring overhead, anonymous citizens bustling around its monolithic structures. The violence is almost overwhelmed by the atmosphere, but it nevertheless makes an impact, especially in the final stages where R has a showdown with Cypher, who is not what he seems and has kidnapped Cyon for his own evil ends. But all this forlorn misery results in a muted final product, which may look like anime brought to life, but loses too much of its poignancy in empty, pretty pictures. Music by Jun-kyu Lee.