Sunday, 6 February 2011

The Host - The beginnings of the modern monster movie renaissance?

* article originally written for

Title: The Host (or Gwoemul as it is known in South Korea).
Release Date: October 10th 2006
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 119 minutes
Director: Bong Joon-Ho
Starring:Song Kang-Ho, Byeon Hee-Bong, Bae Doona
Studio:Magnolia Pictures
Country: South Korea

The monster movie has become vogue in recent years, after years spent wandering the doldrums, thanks largely due to Roland Emmerich’s 1998 god-awful Godzilla remake.  Whilst the SyFy channel still gleefully holds the torch of incomprehensibly stupid b-movies starring giant killer sharks of some mutation, monsters in mainstream cinema have been undergoing something of a renaissance. 2007s Cloverfield took the Blair Witch formula and dressed it up in post 9/11 imagery as a gigantic largely unseen creature ran amok in Manhattan.  Most recently, first time director Gareth Edwards has been wowing critics with Monsters, an art house road movie set along the US/Mexican which just so happens to feature leviathan space aliens. Predating both of these films, however is The Host, a South Korean production released in 2006, which blended a modern sense of realism to the age old monster movie concept with a crushingly macabre sense of humour and most crucially a highly emotional dramatic core.

Opening in a mortuary within a US Army camp based within Seoul, an American scientist recklessly orders his Korean assistant to drain hundreds of bottles of toxic formaldehyde down a sink on the basis that the bottles are dusty. After much hesitation, the assistant obliges and the chemicals are disposed of without a care for the effects it could have upon the local ecosystem of the Han River.  Sure enough, six years later, strange sightings are reported around the river surrounding the Wonhyo Bridge, which connects the Northern and Southern districts of Seoul. Located on the river bank, Park Gang-du (Song Kang-Ho) helps run his father’s refreshment stand. Living on the premises, Gang-du is lazy and greedy, helping himself to the odd squid leg or two, but he is redeemed somewhat by his earnest devotion to his daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seong).  Gang-du is perhaps overshadowed by his much talented sister, Nam-Joo (Bae Doona) a professional archer, but is at least on a par with his brother, Nan-il (Park Hae-il) an alcoholic unfulfilled college graduate. 

What seems like a normal day quickly descends into horror, as the monster makes its first public appearance, running amok along the river bank and swallowing people whole. Gang-du is witness to the whole ordeal, and having the courage (or sheer stupidity) to confront the monster.  Unfortunately, the monster grabs Hyun-seo with its tail and quickly escapes from the area. Soon after, the whole area is cordoned off by the authorities, with all citizens ordered to evacuate.  After the remaining family meet up at the evacuation centre, mourning the apparent death of Hyun-seo, they are whisked away by the containment authorities after Gang-du openly admits to having direct contact with the creature. Meanwhile, we are taken away to the monster’s lair, located in the sewers, where we learn that Hyun-seo is still very much alive, though not for long; it is made apparent that she is being saved for a later dinner. In this moment, she is able to use her mobile phone to contact her father who remains confined within quarantine. What ensues is a quest, where the family are forced to put aside their personal flaws and work together to find Hyun-seo before the monster has the chance to eat her, whilst also avoiding the government forces of the state, who of course are the real monsters of the movie.  

The moment...
 The Host contains a dose of socio-political commentary. At first, the dumping of formaldehyde into the Han River by the US authorities, could be written off with a mere chuckle as an old monster movie cliché, but it is in fact a startling account of real events that occurred in 2000. Elsewhere in the movie, is the use of a chemical weapon known as Agent Yellow, which is a reference to Agent Orange, which was used widely in Vietnam as well as Korea in the 1960s, which led to thousands of children born with severe birth defects. There is obviously an Anti-American sentiment running throughout the movie and the film makers are clearly criticizing the South Korean government for being overly tied up with US relations rather than focusing on the interests of the people. This is, however, a rather heavy handed synopsis of the movie, and it is clear that the movie doesn’t take itself this seriously. During the monster’s first attack, an American tourist heroically enters the fray as you would expect from any Hollywood action star, but he is quickly guzzled up by the monster, a demonstration of the sly sense of humour that is working throughout the course of the film.

Above all, The Host realizes that people are flawed and fully capable of moments of unequivocal stupidity. Much of the movie is driven forward by moments of stupidity or hesitation. Nothing demonstrates this more than the character of Gang-du, a blonde peroxide haired idiot of Homer Simpson proportions. Even when he has lost his daughter, he still finds time to doze off or think about his stomach. Whilst events are specifically and malevolently designed to test and torture Gang-du to the limits, the strength of the movie is in making you root for him and a resolution for his dysfunctional family.           

The film does has a habit of being incongruous, and sometimes this is intentional, the first reveal of the monster for example, as it comes bounding towards Gang-du along the riverside in broad daylight. It offers stark and brutal realism, this is how you’d expect people to react upon first sighting of a amphibious monster and as the scene ends with Gang-du watching the monster from across the river casually eating people alive, it is straight up horror; the likes which other movies, like Cloverfield, couldn’t hope to replicate. Other scenes, however, seem to slide from one tonal extreme to the other. The scene in which the family congregate and mourn the loss of Hyun-seo, is at first emotionally rousing as the sister offers her bronze medal in her memory, but it quickly becomes broad comedy the further the characters go into bereavement, literally rolling around in a heap bawling their eyes out, cursing one another. It is as if the film makers are slapping the audience in the face, telling them to wise up, because it’s only a movie. On the other hand, these moments of tonal imperfection give the first viewing a sense of randomness, you think you could have the movie sussed, but at the same time, the characters could let you down and everything could be in vain.    

During the hype preceding the release of Cloverfield, it was widely speculated that the movie was going to be an American remake of The Host. Luckily, it wasn’t. The Host remains a hidden gem in Korean cinema as well as the entire pantheon of monster movies in general, a well executed odd ball tale of one family’s fight against the state and a giant mutated newt. 

The monster's reveal: stark, brutal, scary and oddly amusing, kudos to the American tourist as well...

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