Joon-ho Bong, 2006, 119 mins. Starring Du-na Bae, Kang-ho Song, Hae-il Park,
Hie-bong Byeon, and Ah-sung Ko.
When I was just a little boy, I was mostly fascinated by
one thing: monsters. I was an easily scared little boy. (Not much
has changed. ;-)) I was haunted
- and still am, to some extent - by a large picture of a ghost in the obviously-titled Hamlyn
Book of Ghosts . I think it was of a spectral fisherman, though I can't
be sure now almost thirty years after the fact; what I do see with remarkable
recognition is the evil beam on its face and the horrible blue-green tones
of the watercolour. And so it was that I gravitated towards Doctor
I was particularly terrified by the Autons and Sontarans, and then I found
Godzilla and the rest is history.
And, really, once you've exhausted the seemingly endless supply of
Godzilla movies (29, at the last count), is there really
much room in the market for another one? I suppose you could argue
that the Alien series
are monster movies, although they dabble with various genres like
horror, action and snoreathon. There's very few other modern movies
(King Kong, certainly, maybe Jurassic Park)
which deal with monsters as the main deal, rather than as a side
dish like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings do.
Perhaps that's because monsters are seen as cheesy, an inevitable
side effect of unconvincing special effects which often rely on stop
motion or (worse) a tall guy in a rubber suit. But since the advent
of CG - and the aforementioned Lord of the Rings movies,
which took monster-dom to a new level - perhaps the time is now right
for the monster movie genre to emerge, screaming, from the water
again, ready to stomp Tokyo. Or wherever.
At least, that's what Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong seemed to
think when he took on The Host, following on from his
success with 2003's Memories of Murder. Reuniting the
double-punch team of Du-na Bae and Kang-ho Song, last seen together
in the majestic Sympathy
for Mr Vengeance, the movie is not unreminiscent
of some of the more recent Godzilla movies (Environmental catastrophe?
Check! Watery origins? Check! Lots of stomping about? Check! Kids
in danger? Check!) and as such not terribly original, but somehow The
Host keeps its freshness despite its rather cheesy plotting
and not-thoroughly-convincing CGI. And, for the record, at the
time of writing it's the highest-grossing Korean movie of all time...
Gang-du Park is a rather lazy, sleepy and unambitious man
who lives with his dad Hie-bong running a food stand by the side
of the Han river. He has a daughter, Hyeun-seo, who dotes on her
aunt, international archer Nam-joo. Completing the family is drunkard
college graduate Nam-il. One day in mid-2006, one of their customers
complains about an unsatisfactory order; as Gang-du takes over some
complimentary beer to placate them, a crowd of people at the edge
of the water are staring at a bizarre creature hanging from the nearby
Han River Bridge. As it slides into the water and approaches them,
they start throwing food at it to make it react, which it does with
a vengeance; about the size of a truck, it jumps out of the water
and runs into the nearby park, causing scenes of utter carnage as
it feasts on the locals.
Panicked about his daughter, Gang-du returns to the stand and
grabs Hyeun-seo's hand, and they run. Where, they're not sure,
as the monster seems to be everywhere; in the chaos, Gang-du trips
and loses hold of Hyeun-seo - to see her grabbed by the fiend and
dragged into the water.
It's actually quite a remarkable opening set-piece - from the
start there's no coyness about showing the beast, which even for
a low-budget (albeit WETA-created) CGI creature has a remarkable
fluidity about it. From here on in, though, as the Parks deal with
the enormity of their loss as well as having to contend with the
government clearup and cover-up, the film starts to lose a little
The monster is deemed to be carrying a deadly virus. The military
move in, and Gang-du is subjected to a number of humiliating tests
to ascertain whether or not he is a carrier. Nonetheless, in the
middle of the night he receives a phone call from the terrified
Hyeun-seo, saying she's alive but trapped in a sewer with a few
others. Gang-du tries to raise the alarm, but the police and doctors
believe he's delusional.
With the help of some organised thugs who take Hie-bong's life
savings as payment, the Parks escape from the hospital and go searching
for the thirteen-year-old...
You can see why this movie has been so successful. For a start,
although it lacks a female love interest for a change, the search
for a child is usually a box-office draw. That, and a massive monster,
obviously. Yet, despite the danger of a cheese-fest, within The
Host beats a heart as black as the waters of the Han river.
Yes, the opening and closing thirds of the movie are (almost) as
predictable as you might expect, but when the movie settles down
and stops trying to be funny (the humour is at roughly an 8-year-old
level) there is a section which is actually pretty grim. As Gang-du
is subjected to unnecessary hospital tests, we presume both Nam-joo
and Nam-il to be dead or incapacitated, leaving the girl, trapped
in a twenty foot high culvert with no ladder, to her own devices.
And, when the beast returns and empties its stomach of half-digested
human remains, things do not look good.
This isn't a horror movie, for sure, and its darkness is much tempered
to remain multiplex friendly, but there's more here than you might
expect. There's a clear anti-American slant, for a start - the Americans
are the ones blamed for creating the monster in the first place,
as well as muscling in on the situation when they get annoyed at
the Korean handling of it, before bungling things themselves. And,
you could argue, just like Godzilla was a product of the
atomic age, The Host is very much a result of concern for
the recent turn of world events, as well of desire for preservation
of the natural environment.
The Host is by no means a perfect movie; the director
seems to focus more on the performance of the monster than his
actors. Kang-ho Song carries much of the movie, showing the same
sort of range he displayed as the devastated, murderous Park in Sympathy
for Mr Vengeance. Du-na Bae is astonishingly under-used;
she barely utters a word and looks frumpy as hell. Ah-sung Ko's
Hyeung-seo is, frankly, somewhat irritating and falls into cute
kid rather than accomplished young actor territory. Plaudits, though,
for the mutated fish-like monster, which moves with a tremendous
fluidity and only crosses the line into requiring a large suspension
of disbelief right at the movie's climax.
Yet, despite its flaws and plotholes, The Host is at least
a good stab at a modern monster movie. There's a clearly signposted
sequel opportunity at the end - two, in fact - and the cynic in me
just wonders how much the producers were keeping an eye on selling
on the remake rights; there's nothing in the movie which is distinctively
Korean, and you can imagine the movie taking place just as easily
in New York, or Chicago, or San Francisco...
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Chills: 6/10. Some nicely tense moments
Sex: 0/10, unless you like
fishy birth scenes, in which case, a very brief 10/10
There's a couple of particularly gruesome scenes
Fish faces: 2
Bad American actors: about 3. All rubbish.
Possibility of 2010 release
of Godzilla vs The Host : fair
Films in a Similar Style: Pretty much any monster
movie you care to name
*** Recommended ***
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The Host Wallpaper
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Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2007
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.thehost.co.kr/ - official site, in Korean
http://www.hostmovie.com/ - international official site, currently
just a placeholder with the promise of more to come
http://www.hancinema.net/korean_movie_The_Host.php - all sorts of
info, articles and publicity shots at the Korean movie database
http://www.cinematical.com/2006/09/13/tiff-interview-the-host-director-bong-joon-ho/ - interview with the director about the movie
http://www.strangehorizons.com/reviews/2006/12/joonho_bongs_th.shtml - perceptive review by Jonathan McCalmont
http://www.lovehkfilm.com/panasia/host.htm - another interesting
review at LoveHKFilm.