The monster movie has certainly changed a lot over the last 70 years – especially when it comes to special effects. Where once creatures had to be cast out of clay and maneuvered frame by frame to create a static sense of stop motion, or real live lizards festooned with fake fins were utilized amongst miniaturized backdrops, our current crop of film imagineers can simply call on their computer to create eye-popping examples of otherworldly terror. Jurassic Park more or less proved that such a strategy could result in box office gold, and now Gwoemul (The Host, in English) is aiming for the same dollar-rich demographic. Granted, it’s nothing more than The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms assisted by lots of motherboard manipulation, but it’s a wonderful reminder of the genre’s potential and effectiveness.
After the Han River is polluted by a premeditated chemical spill (thank you very much, United States!), a strange sea creature, about the size of a city bus, starts stalking the sewers (and streets) of Seoul, South Korea. An attack on a riverside retreat affects Park Gang-Du, a lazy freeloader who helps his dad run a local snack stand. In an instant, the slacker’s daughter Hyun-seo is taken, and the rest of the family – including an ex-social activist and a beloved female athlete - are in a panic. They also end up on the run from the law. Seems the beast is considered the “host” for a nasty virus, and a major quarantine is in place. Because of their interaction with the monster, the Parks become wanted fugitives. Things get even more complicated when Gang-Du discovers that Hyun-seo may still be alive. He and his siblings must find her before the Americans use something called “Agent Yellow” to kill the creature – effectively wiping out everything and anyone within close proximity of the bio-weapon’s path.
It’s the set up for a standard search and rescue narrative – something lost having to be regained under the auspices of personal gumption and an impending threat. But because this movie was made in Korea, and not inside Hollywood’s focus group fancying mandates, The Host (new to DVD from Mangnolia Home Entertainment) tends to avoid most of the genre’s obvious pitfalls. Indeed, it generates a great deal more interest in areas your typical studio blockbuster avoids, while sticking rather closely to the formula of your standard Bert I. Gordon ‘beast on the loose’ B-picture. With the added weight of CGI (this movie just would not work with some other kind of F/X) and the excellent use of Seoul’s gleaming post-modern metropolis backdrop, we end up with something unique. While the action/adventure aspects of The Host may seem familiar, it has major distinctions that make it wholly original.
The first is the level of sentiment employed to enhance the storyline. It is manipulation at its most enjoyable – direct, unfettered and completely shameless. When deadbeat daddy Park Gang-Du (actor Kang-ho Song looking like a chunky skate rat) looses his daughter in the opening monster melee, we really feel for him. Similarly, when the rest of the family shows up to share their (and give him) grief, the outpouring of pain is exaggerated and majestic. It is obvious that director Joon-ho Bong is elevating the sequence to increase its comic value, but the performances from his actors really sell a sense of sorrow and sadness. Later on, when Gang-Du learns that his daughter, Hyun-seo, may still be alive, his drive to discover the truth and set things straight carries the film past many of its more problematic points.
All of this is purposefully designed on the director’s part. In a genial and informative commentary included on the DVD, Bong explains that he wanted to intentionally thwart convention, to show the beast early on, to make the family fragile and dysfunctional, to emphasize the heart and not the horror. To him, the genre is already submerged in stereotypical concepts and run of the mill approaches. That is why The Host seems so fresh and invigorating. Unlike other recent examples of this kind of movie – mostly found late at night on the Sci-Fi Channel - this is a fright fest more interested in the spaces in between the spectacle than the set pieces themselves. Almost from the first frames, you can see an entirely different cultural mindset at work.
Indeed, the differences can be night and day staggering at times. The police are portrayed as totally corrupt, ignoring the pleas of a plaintive father as the ravings of a lunatic. To make matters worse, they appear capable of action only when a bribe is involved. Similarly, the US is painted as a country of brash, international thugs. They roll over the Koreans, giving orders while simultaneously hiding crucial information in a conspiratorial X-Files like manner. And Bong bobbles things a bit as well. Some of the ancillary characters never pay off, or worse, feel included to complement an eventual popcorn movie action showdown (like Gang-Du’s sister, the Olympic medalist…in archery…wink, wink). We keep waiting for the time spent on them to deliver some manner of denouement. In the end, they are merely cogs in a well-meaning genre effort.
Still, The Host has a lot going for it. It is absolutely side-splitting at times. Like the best Bollywood cinema which has no problem incorporating cinematic styles for the sake of a storyline, it uses spoof, slapstick, some pointed political commentary, and a lot of sunny schlock value to keep the entertainment factor lively and up front. This is not a deep thinking film, not a real environmentalist mandate like some of Japan’s Godzilla films can be. On the other hand, this is not a scary film. Not at all. Sure, we experience some minor dread during the rescue sequences, but Bong is too upfront with his fright ideals to trick us into terror. This is also not an action packed epic. The overall filmmaking tends to be more subtle than spectacular in dealing with the monster attacks. According to the DVD’s bonus material, this is exactly the way the director wanted it.
All minor quibbles aside, this is still an excellent example of how foreign filmmakers are taking Western cinema and deconstructing it point by motion picture point. First, the Chinese literally reinvented the crime drama, the Hong Kong style of operatic gunplay eventually giving way to a more metaphysical approach. Then the Japanese stepped in and explored the old fashioned eeriness of ghosts and spirits with the now evaporating J-horror craze. Korea is currently coming up with intriguing combinations, with everything from The Tale of Two Sisters to The Host collapsing categories while dealing with concrete cinematic staples. Call it Leviathan Goes Nutzoid or The Terror of the Truck-Sized Tadpole, but this entertaining monster movie will definitely satisfy your creature feature needs.
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