The Host (2006)
Bong Joon-ho’s The Host is the best political monster movie to come along since the original Gojira, but don’t think the film is content on being just a biting satire on government policies of both the United States and South Korea. No, there is so much more to uncover that each aspect of the film could be its own separate review. There is a subtle, almost dark comedic undertone to this movie, as well as a few scenes of poignant drama and sincerity. But above all else, it’s a serious horror film, a thriller packed with scares and screams as a result of an amphibious creature with a vicious temper and carnivorous tendencies. Don’t expect this monster to ever have a showdown with Mothra or King Kong. It just wouldn't be fair to those two.
In 2000, an American civilian mortician ordered his staff to pour over 120 liters of formaldehyde into the morgue’s plumbing system which led to the Han River, the main source of drinking water in Seoul, South Korea. That’s not the plot, that’s the truth. The Host rethinks this true event with much more disastrous results. There is still an American mortician (Scott Wilson) that orders a Korean underling to dump dusty bottles of formaldehyde into the morgue’s plumbing, but the end result is a creature (once a fish, now mutated from the chemicals) that dwells beneath a bridge that overlooks the Han River. One afternoon the creature comes ashore and snatches a small girl. That girl is Hyun-Seo (Ko A-Sung), of the Park family. Hee-Bong (Byun Hee-Bong) is a shop owner and the girl’s grandfather; his son, the girl’s deadbeat father, is Kang-Du (Song Kang-Ho), which is a particularly interesting name because it sounds like “can do.” Once the girl’s kidnapping (and apparent death) is reported in the news, Hee-Bong’s two estranged kids, Nam-Joo (Bae Doo-Na), a bronze medal archery champion, and Nam-Il (Park Hae-Il), an unemployed college dropout, come into town and join the Park clan in search of missing girl.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Park clan isn’t the monster, but the opposing government forces that have taken control of the situation in South Korea. Bong Joon-ho, serving as the film’s co-screenwriter, depicts two government forces with missing ideals: the South Korean government is more focused on questioning and containing the contaminated townsfolk than it does on taking action while the American military force is more take-charge, launching a full-scale assault on the creature without asking questions. The Americans, however, do provide answers, as demonstrated when a news blip informs the public that the monster is carrying a disease that is similar to SARS epidemic. Meanwhile, the Korean government is insists, “let the news provide answers,” and in one of the best scenes of the movie, a government official in full hazmat gear enters a quarantine facility, walks to the center of the room, and trips and falls. Upon the film’s initial release, it was cited as being two anti-American, but Joon-ho, a native of Seoul, knows that it is two wrongs that don’t make a right, not just one.
Yet amidst the political aversion of the film, The Host fills the screen with thoughtful and meaningful performances that lend well to a theme within the film of unity among family. The Parks are eccentric to be sure but based entirely in reality. It is the performances of each member of the Park clan that allow their characters to ring true in the real world. Byun Hee-Bong, as the Park patriarch, brings a certain pride and honor to the role, but has the look of a beaten, bitter man that cannot tolerate his kids’ excessive fighting during times of grief. Song Kang-Ho, as the oldest son Kang-Du, has the dual responsibility of providing the film’s comic relief but convincing the audience that he is truly attempting to be a great father to his daughter; Kang-Ho succeeds because his doesn’t act the fool, but as a misguided and misunderstood father. Ko A-Sung and Bae Doo-Na, as Hyun-Seo and Nam-Joo, stand strong and sturdy in their roles. Park Hae-Il is the weaker of the five as Nam-Il because his character feels written in at the last moment, but plays the part as the protector, the younger sibling standing up for his two older ones. Because of the attributable qualities that these actors bring to the roles, these characters feel relatable, never contrived or created.
But that’s not the end of the convincing performances. As the amphibious, mutated creature, the monster is frightening. It helps some that it has a team of acting coaches, the special effects gurus at The Orphanage. There is no means to link the creature in The Host to another of its kind, though I will give it a go: its body, long and lean, looks like an electric eel, with four webbed feet attached that lead to three webbed appendages that look like tripods. Its tail is constantly moving like a lizard’s, though no one in the film dares to attempt to sever it to see if it’ll grow back. As the creature is about to feed, it opens its mandibles, which come apart wide like the mouth of the Predator; it eats its food whole, and then later regurgitates it out beneath the sewer system of the Han River. Now picture such a creature running faster than an ostrich, leaping into the air like a dolphin, and hanging beneath a bridge like a bat. Much like how Godzilla’s name means “gorilla” and “whale” and the creature is neither, the monster of The Host is unique, which is easily its most terrifying attribute because no one knows how to defeat it, or where it dwells.
Behind the camera, Joon-ho lends an almost orchestral hand to the on-screen proceedings, arranging his monster, his characters, and his themes together as one cohesive unit. There are times where the pacing of The Host feels lackluster, particularly during the sequences where no member from the Park clan is to be found on screen, but often these scenes are coupled with ones of thrilling action and excitement. Take, for example, the first scene in which the monster emerges from the depths of the Han River, gallops along the shoreline, and charges into a crowd of fleeing people. Here Joon-ho is moving his camera like his characters, running along side and weaving in and out of obstacles in an attempt to capture all the action. At one point, he breaks from the chaos to show his audience a nice picnic; this image is not meant to be taken in as it is a means for the audience to catch their breath and it seems like Joon-ho and his camera are doing the same. Moments later, the monster tramples on through, barreling into some more bystanders before returning to the waters from which it came, and the out-of-breath audience is left with the image of the ripple from the monster’s dive.
The Host is South Korea’s highest grossing film of all time. It might seem like a strange choice for filmgoers to make, but it is a smart one. Beneath the action, adventure, drama, comedy, and thrills that the movie holds on the surface, there is an underlining political satire that hits home to a lot of movie audiences from all countries. There is an undeniable charm to a film that hits all the right notes in several different tunes and The Host is an example of such a film.
This review is part of Southeast Asian Horror Week, the fourth of five celebrations of international horror done for our Shocktober 2008 event.