Friday, May 29, 2009

The Host

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting around the house alone on a Friday night with nothing to do. So, naturally, like everyone else in that situation I thought it would be a good idea to catch up on my South Korean monster movie watching. I’ve been sorely neglecting it lately. Haven’t you? Now, I know what you’re thinking. Who has the time? Right? No?!? Just me again? Cripes, I’m beginning to think I’m the only weirdo left in the world. Well, in order to represent my waning demographic I sat down and watched “The Host.” Critically acclaimed at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2006, The Host is the third feature film directed by Bong Joon-ho, and is a brilliant genre-stretching work that has no fear of testing the long-held traditions of scores of creature-features that came before it. Not knowing what to expect going in, I was pleasantly surprised by The Host which is made up of equal parts drama, slapstick comedy, political melodrama, action, and, of course, monster movie mayhem.

Like so many sci-fi movies before it, the creature in The Host is the product of human carelessness with toxic and hazardous chemicals. The beast is born from the Han River when a mortician at the Yongsan U.S. Army base in Seoul orders his lackey to pour bottles of dirty formaldehyde down the drain. This scene is based in on an actual incident that occurred in 2000. Albert McFarland, an American mortician at Yongsan ordered his staff to pour 50 gallons of formaldehyde down the drain. Although the chemicals passed through two treatment plants before reaching the Han, source of Seoul's drinking water, the scandal sparked an anti-American uproar in South Korea. It is unknown weather or not any giant, amphibious behemoths have mutated from the irresponsible actions of Mr. McFarland. However, just like “Them”, “Tarantula”, “Frankenstein Conquers the World”, and so many more before, Bong Joon-ho’s account shows that the irresponsibility of mans’ actions do carry consequences. When will we ever learn? Check out the TopTen Movie Monsters of All Time here.

The action in the movie revolves around the uber-dysfunctional Park family. The elderly father owns and operates a snack bar on the banks of the Han. His son, Gang-du, who works at the stand is apparently so incompetent and lazy that he is unaffected by removal of part of his brain later in the film. His younger brother is a hopeless drunk, and their sister is (improbably) a nationally acclaimed archery medalist. Gang-du has a young daughter, Hyun-seo, who is the apple of everyone’s eye and perpetually disappointed in her idiotic father. As the movie opens Gang-du joins a crowd of onlookers that have noticed something hanging from the underside of the Han River Bridge. In a shocking turn of events the onlookers become a terrified screaming horde as the monster drops from the bridge then dexterously leaps out of the water onto land and tears a swath through the crowd in one of the best fleeing in horror scenes of any monster movie that I can recall. As the creature reenters the water it grabs sweet little Hyun-seo and carries her off to its lair, setting in motion a series of events leading to an international political incident.

Here is where Bong Joon-ho breaks with tradition. In most creature features the monster is kept out of sight as long as possible as the suspense builds in the audience and the imagination of moviegoers takes hold. Speilberg does this in “Jaws” brilliantly.Additionally , a second reason for keeping the monster out of sight until the film’s climax is because, honestly, most movie monsters look like crap. They are either appear to be poorly made Muppets spun up on crystal meth or are obviously computer generated and seem to have been cut out with scissors and glued into each frame of the film. This is not the case with the creature in The Host. The state-of-the-art special effects courtesy of a creative partnership between Weta Workshop (King Kong, The Lord of the Rings) and The Orphanage (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Sin City) create a living, breathing animal that is as real as the scrambling mass of people that it consumes. It makes the dinosaurs in Jurassic park look like the claymation dinosaur family on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Besides the fact that the creature looks like a massive salamander/catfish/frog hybrid with gloriously hideous a vagina denta mouth, the beast is made creepier not by only its speed and agility, but also by its sometimes awkwardness of movement and perfect scale which make it seem even more realistic. By shifting the audience’s distraction at guessing what the monster will look like since Bong places the monster right in front of them, this frees the director up to focus attention on the characters and storytelling instead of the train wreck that monster movies usually become. So, in a break from tradition The Host brings the creature front and center immediately and does so flawlessly.

Sticking true to the genre, as part of an American-backed disinformation campaign the South Korean government announces that the beast apparently is the host of an unidentified virus so anyone that came into contact with it must be quarantined. Some my say this political subplot is just a distraction, but I challenge anyone to find a monster movie that doesn’t have a political understory. Having feared the worst, Gang-du receives a phone call from his daughter who is frightened, but very much alive in the monster's lair. Gang-du makes plans to infiltrate the quarantined area with the rest of the Park family to rescue his daughter from the clutches of the horrifying Host. Along the way the Parks are drawn closer together as they battle not only the amphibious, mutant beast, but also scores incompetent government conspirators and, in the end, an American chemical weapon called "Agent Yellow."

The Host is a surprising treasure in a genre that is as old as film itself. It swings sometimes violently from being an action film to a comedy to a tear-jerking drama, but it does so in a memorable fashion that doesn’t seem forced or constrained by the label of “creature feature.” Without being a spoiler I will say that the ending is very gloomy, surprising, and depressing. Definitely not your typical Hollywood ending, which I count as another star on the lapel for director Bong Joon-ho. All in all, The Host was an unexpectedly well-done gem that is worth the watch if you don’t mind somewhat obscure, South Korean monster movies with subtitles or voice-overs.


TJ said...

Wow, really? Is it still a "B" movie then? B+? How would you rate it?

Dan said...

By height. But seriously, I have a problem with film ratings. Hundreds of people spend years of their lives and millions of dollars getting a film to market, and all critics and reviewers have to offer is a five-star rating? Why not 100 stars to decrease the error and add some kind of actual meaning? Oh, right. That would be too much like real work.

The way I see it, films (much like music) are either worth your time or not worth your time, and that is obviously hugely subjective. Some people have bad taste and like shite movies such as "A.I." or "The Wedding Planner." Some people have a more cultured and brilliant world view and appreciate films such as "Weasels Rip My Flesh" and "Student Bodies." I think that "The Host" is an excellent film, and is definitely worth anyone's time.