Monday, October 15, 2007

Random Movie Report #37: The Host

I’m surprised I hadn’t seen THE HOST before now, as it’s a movie about a giant mutated monster wreaking havoc in coastal Asia, and it received a fair amount of critical acclaim. Heck, I had the DVD out for a while before actually watching it. But it’s a worthy film, certainly one that kicks a lot of life into what’s been a moribund genre for many years (J. J. Abrams has something along these lines coming out next January) and it does so by blending the monster movie tropes with those from a bunch of other genres to create a sprawling and fairly unpredictable adventure.

The film’s monster is some kind of strange sea creature, born when a bunch of toxic chemicals are dumped under bizarre circumstances from a U.S. military base hospital in South Korea into the Han river. It is first seen at a riverfront park in Seoul, where people throw beer cans and peanuts at it until it comes ashore and starts devouring them. The monster snatches up Park Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko), the daughter of Park Gang-Du (Kang-ho Song), a struggling single parent working at a food stand owned by his father (Hie-bong Byeon). The child is presumed dead, and Gang-Du’s brother Nam-il (Hae-il Park), an unemployed graduate, and sister Nam-Joo (Du-na Bae) head home to commiserate. Unfortunately, at a memorial, they’re all put under quarantine, as apparently the creature is a host to some mysterious virus. One night in the hospital, Gang-Du receives a call from his daughter on her mobile. She’s alive, somewhere in the sewers. And so the family arrange a breakout, which would be more difficult if the government weren’t making a complete hash of the quarantine operation. At some point the American military decides to step in, and then things get really ugly.

The tone of the film is an odd one, characterized by humor that ranges from farcical to pitch-black. The main character suffers from underachievement and narcolepsy, and everyone has their quirks (Nam-Joo is a championship-level archer, but is extremely slow to act.) The corruption of the local government, as well as its apparent subservience to the U.S., plays heavily into the story. So there’s a conspiracy angle, a quirky family comedy angle, and a black comedy angle, all blending together along with a few other things I can’t think of right now. On top of all this, the actual monster element is played with the kind of psuedo-documentary realism that distinguished the original GODZILLA. The filmmakers play on memories of the SARS outbreak and accompanying paranoia, with everyone wearing breath masks and edging away from people who cough. And of course the American plan involves something called “Agent Yellow”, which can’t be good.

But forget all this side business. What of the monster? Looking like a kind of bipedal mudfish and moving with an awkward-yet-swift gait, the mutant is a very impressive CGI creation. Obviously South Korean movies don’t have the kind of budget American spectacles get, yet the critter is as convincing as anything I saw in the LORD OF THE RINGS films. A lot of work was obviously done to blend skin color and shades with the live-action plates, and this is more impressive given how many times it appears in moving and awkwardly framed shots. The documentary style helps a lot, and the monster’s first appearance at the riverside is ingeniously staged, a scene reminiscent of JAWS in many ways. I would complain that the creature isn’t allowed to develop the personality of a Godzilla or King Kong, but that’s really a limitation of the story; there’s deliberately something unknown and mysterious about all of what’s going on, especially since we’re viewing this on the level of the average man on the street.

There’s a lot going on here, and it does start to come apart near the climax, which is messier than it should have been. It was perhaps asking too much for everything in this film to hold together, but it does a damn good job for the majority of its running time, and it’s not like the ending’s bad. Overall THE HOST is a superior monster movie which stretches the boundaries of what the genre can do, and ends up putting a very fresh spin on something that had become very formalized and ritualized. A nice little surprise of a movie that will hopefully start a trend.

Written by Chul-hyun Baek, Joon-ho Bong, Jun-won Ha
Directed by Joon-ho Bong
Grade: B+

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