The Host

13 Apr

Director: Bong Joon-Ho (2006)

I’ve never been one to run to the front of the queue when it comes to the monster movies. I am a big horror fan but for some reason I find myself unable to suspend my disbelief for any extended period that would allow me to enjoy the movie. Plus the inevitable formulaic list of characters including the shrill female lead/love interest/victim, old man, substance abuser, renegade, hometown hero, just become too much. So when The Host was thrown on the table, I was admittedly dubious; however, Asian cinema sure knows how to do a horror and so the benefit of the doubt as granted…

And then there is the comedy. I have – somehow- ended up seeing a few Asian comedies in my time none of which have really tickled my proverbial fancy so when the descriptions I read of The Host declared it to be scary and hilarious….alarm bells began to sound. But still – benefit of doubt given, mainly for the intrigue to see what it was about this film that resulted in it becoming South Korea’s highest grossing film of all time. Quite the accolade.

The Host opens with an American pathologist in a lab, nonchalantly yet with an air of malevolence and foreshadowing doom, pouring gallons of formaldehyde down the drains leading to the inevitable discovery, and discarding, of a strange mutation by a couple of fishermen. The film flashes forward four years to Seoul where a layabout, good for nothing father and snack-bar employee, Gang-Du, is serving food to one of his tables. Noticing a crowd gathering by the Han River, he too notices a strange mass hanging from under the bridge; then a large splash as the thing falls into the water and proceeds to swim towards the shore. And then burst out of the water and begin its feeding frenzy on the unsuspecting residents of Seoul.

One of the things which immediately gave The Host brownie points compared to other monster movies is the absence of the somewhat tiresome build up to the day light reveal of the monster. There is a time and a place for such tension build up with regards to the monster reveal – or indeed the absence of the monster, but in my eyes, if you are making a ‘blockbuster’ film, the audience wants to see some monster action. The Host doesn’t disappoint but I think in unleashing the monster so early on, in the first 15 minutes, we are able to see the real focus of the film – an unlikely but nonetheless touching family comedy. Gang-Du is a completely hopeless father, barely able to look after himself and an embarrassment to his siblings, father and daughter, he brings comedy to the film from the get go. But when his incompetence is put before the rampaging monster, resulting in him grabbing the hand of the wrong little girl in a crowd leaving his own daughter Hyun-Seo to the mercy of the monster, he is forced to grow up. And pretty fast if he is to beat the beast’s digestive tract and save his daughter. Cue a family reunion and rescue mission into the sewer systems.

While there are no truly terrifying moments, it is in this family storyline that we find the true charm of The Host. Estranged and dysfunctional, all the members of Gang-Du’s family, including his alcoholic activist brother and talented but hesitant archer sister, come together in a wonderfully haphazard way which, to borrow a filmic analogy from other critics, is not unlike everyone’s favourite family of miscreants in Little Miss Sunshine. Only with monsters. And political corruption.

It’s hard to avoid the political undertones and inspirations that understandably infiltrate Korean cinema but in The Host, it just works. From the careless (or malicious?) pathologist whose disposal of the chemicals starts this mess, to the decontamination staff, the metaphor of cleansing of the city of pollutants, infection and alien species as facilitated and organised by American military screams louder than the monster’s victims themselves.

For monster movie fans, the actual depiction of the monster is actually rather great, particularly note must be given to the seamless use of CGI not only for the physical appearance of the monster but also its movement, in water and on land. Hard as it is to decipher in a film in translation, the scripting, comedy timing combined with tender, heart wrenching moments, the story itself never falls by the wayside in favour of overdramatic scenes. Gore is minimal but the tension and anticipation surrounding the monster remains, a true testament to Joon-Ho and also, a worthy addition to the monster genre.

It is a sad but true fact that this film will undoubtedly be reserved only for monster fans or Asian cinema buffs rather than receive the wider audience which it clearly deserves. The Host adds evidence to the case that a monster movie can exist without a semi naked fool of a woman shrieking her way into an early grave or racial stereotyping instead proving that the notion of the monster can be used to represent anything from political disturbance, distrust, alienated familial relationships or even a failure to grow up – I guess the real monster depends on what frightens you the most…

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One Response to “The Host”

  1. Other James Gray April 25, 2011 at 2:49 pm #

    A few years ago I saw this film in the liquid rooms on a friday night, and had no idea what the hell I was watching. Thanks for helping me work that out!

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