THE HOST (2006)
Bong Joon-ho's monster movie is a rip-roaring horror-action-comedy mash-up that snaps its jaws at everything from US relations to inept governance
The Host has more layers than an Australian in Seoul during January. Multi-faceted both in terms of genre, but also in social commentary. A monster movie from the horror genre, a high-octane action, a family drama and at times an outright comedy.
It is also a view of US-Korean relations, environmental concerns, bureaucratic and inept government control, and resulting public hysterical.
After Memories of Murder (2003) announced Director Bong as a directorial superstar, The Host was a much-anticipated follow-up, one that does not disappoint to further establish Bong as one of Korea’s finest modern filmmakers.
In 2000, a US military pathologist tells his Korean assistant to dump 200 bottles of formaldehyde down a drain leading straight into the Han River. In the following years, a large amphibious creature starts to grow.
We jump forwards six years and meet Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), the slow-witted proprietor of a snack bar by the river which he runs with his father, Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong). The wider family includes Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung), Gang-du's daughter, his national medalist archer sister Nam-joo (Bae Doona) and alcoholic college graduate brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il).
After enough years festering in the pits of the Han and consuming the river's fish, the monster, or Gwoemul, jumps onto land to go human hunting instead.
When Hee-bong is grabbed by the creature and taken into the river, the family assume her to be dead and are forced into government quarantine loaded just with sorrow and loss.
There is a very small list of South Korean blockbusters praised in North Korea. However, with its anti-US sentiment, The Host is one of them. The film is part inspired by a 2000 incident where a Korean mortician working for the US military in Seoul was ordered to dump a large amount of formaldehyde down the drain, while the American military stationed in South Korea are also often seen as being uncaring about the effects their activities have on locals.
The film boasts some decent enough special effects, made more impressive by the budgetary restraints placed on Director Bong. After reading a local article about a deformed fish with an S-shaped spine caught in the Han River, Bong used this as his inspiration for the creature’s appearance.
While there is not much wrong with this overall execution, the monster is perhaps the main fault line in the film’s delivery – it is just not that scary, meaning the more outright horror elements of the film fall slightly flat.
However, there is so much else going on throughout, this barely seems to matter, as Bong spins his now famous web of cinematic influences and genres. One moment we are witnessing pure anguish, the next there is a slap-stick family escape scene. No-one does this better than Bong.
Another element which makes it work so well is a superb cast and set of performances, not just from headliners Song Kang-ho and Bae Doona, but the entire ensemble.
Boisterous, funny, action-packed and loaded with enough social commentary to keep a pub conversation going all night, The Host is a monster movie like no other from a director like no other.