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Host, The (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 09 March 2007
Just about everyone loves a good monster movie, and “The Host” is a VERY good monster movie, one made for the 21st century. It’s the first true re-imagining of monster movies since “Jaws,” but it’s nothing at all like that film, either. It’s comic, scary, touching, exciting and satirical, sometimes all in the same scene. And it has not just good, but great special effects, which are used extremely imaginatively by director Bong Joon-ho. Sometimes the monster, or part of it, is only glimpsed in a tiny upper corner of the screen; sometimes it’s the center of the action, sometimes it’s carrying on in the background while the movie focuses on the quasi-functional family at the center of the story. It’s the biggest home-grown hit in South Korean movie history.

The effects team is scattered around the world; some work was done by Peter Jackson’s WETA in New Zealand, some by The Orphanage, headquartered in the U.S., and some by a home-grown Korean team. Kevin Rafferty was in charge at The Orphanage. The monster doesn’t look quite like anything you’ve ever seen before; it’s about the size of an especially large orca, gallops about on all fours (though it has more than four legs), has a long prehensile tail which it uses in several spectacular and unexpected ways, and a gaping, cavernous mouth unlike anything in nature. It seems to be a mutated salamander, but it’s anyone’s guess. It’s remarkably consistent in size and behavior, and impressively photo-realistic.

But as I say, it’s not the center of the movie, which begins a scene based on a disturbing real event: at a U.S. military base, the American chief of the morgue orders his Korean assistant to pour toxic chemicals down the drain that empties into the Han River. Some years later, a couple of fishermen spot something weird, then more years pass.

Aging Hie-bong Park (Byeon Hie-bong) runs a food stand in a park beside the broad Han River. His eldest son, Gang-Du (Song Kang-ho), is something of a ne’er-do-well, hanging out, eating up the profits (including dried squid), and goofing off with his 12-year-old daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung), whose mother ran off years ago. The people in the park notice something odd hanging from the large bridge that arches over the Han, then that something uncoils, falls into the water, and charges out onto the riverbank, killing people left and right, swallowing some whole.

It’s traditional in monster movies to build up to the creature’s first appearance, but Joon-ho brings his beast on early and prominently. The scenes of people fleeing in panic as the monster gallops menacingly along behind them are exciting and convincing, and truly scary—the beast is fast, strong and merciless. But the director doesn’t shy away from the comic possibilities; sometimes only the monster’s humped back is glimpsed as it barrels along between trailers. Gang-du surprises himself when he tries to help fight back at the monster, but a terrible thing happens as the monster makes its getaway: that prehensile tail curls around Hyun-seo and carries her away. Hie-bong becomes determined to track the monster to its urban lair; he’s helped by Gang-Du, his unemployed other son Nam-il (Park Hae-il), competitive archer daughter Nam-Joo (Bae Du-na). But there’s a complication: there are reports that the monster carries a deadly plague, that it is The Host of the title. Bureaucracy kicks in, with refugee camps set up (ringed by memorial photos of those lost, or thought lost, to the monster), the military in charge, and potential plague-carries, such as the Park family, isolated in clinics.

But the Parks become determined to rescue Hyun-Seo, and set off in a group to rescue her. The movie cuts occasionally to the cement chamber the monster uses as a holding place for victims it swallowed: it regurgitates them, sometimes still alive, and comes back later to finish them off. Hyun-Seo is still alive, and heroically protects a boy even younger than she.

“The Host” falters a little in its mid-section, as each member of the Park family is eventually given a sequence to show their worth, but the film thoroughly recovers by the big-scale, almost awesome—and tragic—climax.

This movie has been wowing film festival audiences all around the world for the last six or eight months, and it’s likely to gain new fans here—that is, if you can actually locate a theater showing it. Everything about it is distinctly unlike American monster movies; the military is a rarely glimpsed hindrance, not the heroes of the hour; scientists never turn up; there are no scenes of massive destruction—the monster isn’t big enough for that. All this is replaced by an emphasis on the Park family, with the acrobatic monster (wait until you see how it travels along hanging from the bridges) largely kept in the background. But its menace is real, and underlies all scenes—some of which are outright comical.

The humor in the film is also quite unlike that in equivalent American films, which usually centers on the difficulty of killing the creature, or the sheer unlikeliness of it turning up in the first place. There’s some satire, quite a bit of it aimed at Americans (unusual but not surprising in South Korea, whose population is traditionally pro-American), some at the difficulties of battering your way through bureaucratic tangles.

The cast is excellent, especially the three leads, Byeon Hie-bong, Song Kang-ho and young Ko Ah-Sung. (Forgive me if I have placed surnames where first names should go.) And the acting is also more important in “The Host” than in most English-language monster movies—or even in the Kaiju eiga of Japan.

You’ve never seen a movie quite like “The Host,” with its unusual, refreshing blend of comedy, tragedy and monster thrills. This could be one of the landmark films of the year.

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