doomsey reviews The Host

The Hostaka Gwoemul (Original Title)
120 min., 2006
Written by Joon Ho Bong/Jun-Won Ha/Chul-Hyun Baek
Directed by Joon Ho Bong
Language: Korean
My rating: ★★★★

The Host (the 2006 Korean film, not the more recent American production of the same name) combines classic Japanese monster movie tropes with a healthy dose of comedy, anti-government attitude, and surprisingly well-done visual effects.

* * *

The Host opens with an awful pun in Korean Engrish. And this is how the movie goes, simultaneously smart and completely ridiculous. It has a classic monster origin story with a gas-masked flunky pouring a toxic stew of bottled chemicals into the drain his lab as ordered by his American boss, and from there into flowing into the Han River. We then cut to fishermen, two years later, pulling a mutated fish out of the river.

And then we cut another four years, to our bumbling hero, and the now fully developed monster. A simultaneously frightening and comical land-sea fish-beast, it swims and runs, eats cans of beer whole but only the bottom half of fisherman. The monster itself is tasteful and understated CGI—for an intentionally over the top monster movie, in any event. Since this is, in fact, a monster movie, the monster catches and runs off with the hero’s daughter. After a suitable period of mourning the hero, Park Gang-Do, embarks on his Quest: to kill the monster, and save his no-longer-dead daughter. The title itself refers to the Monster carrying an unidentified virus, spread by physical contact, sending our hero to a quarantine hospital from which he must escape.

However, this is not “just” a monster movie. The most notable aspect of the film is the fusion of the environmentalist themes of classic Japanese-style monster movie with satirisation of political overreach and disaster paranoia. Particularly in focus was criticism of the difference in response to environmental damages versus infectious disease. The movie is a product of the SARS era in Southeast Asia, where healthy people were quarantined, the common cold criminalized, and environmental damage due to pollution went unabated.

The film also strongly criticizes American intervention in the region. An American mortician dumps the chemicals that lead to the Monster in the first place, the Americans “discover” a virus associated with the Monster, an American doctor “treats” Gang-Do but won’t hear a word he says, and the Americans ultimately unleash an ineffective biological agent (called “Agent Yellow” in a clear reference to the Vietnam War) in an effort to kill the Monster. Korean government does not receive a sympathetic portrayal either; they are seen as stooges, allowing the Americans to make all of the decisions and blindly (and ineffectively) following the American lead over the objections of the populace.

And yet, despite heady political content the film is a hoot, featuring comic relief from bumbling authorities to a thrilling low-speed chase around a parking garage ramp. Leading the comedic aspects of the film is Kang-ho Song’s Gang-Do, whom he plays as an ineffective, narcoleptic bleach-blond punk with a knack for doing the wrong thing at the right time. In one notable scene he demonstrates how the Monster could move its victims without hurting them by eating, and spitting out, his cellphone. His father, played by Byun Hee-Bong, plays the straight man and ably plays the comic foil for Song. Several American actors have cameo roles as the incompetent Americans that cause and escalate the crisis; I particularly enjoyed the introductory segment (apparently based on a real event) in which Scott Wilson (“The Walking Dead”) plays an American mortician with an antipathy to dust who orders his Korean assistant to simply pour the dusty bottles of toxic chemicals down the drain and into the river.

Visually, the computer-generated monster is integrated into the film and not jarring; it also integrated well into the film as a whole. Unlike some monster movies, The Host does not avoid showing the monster to save on special effects; instead, they revel in it, and the monster runs, jumps, and swings over and under the Han River park and bridges. The indoor sets are somewhat over the top, but the production makes up for this by shooting much of the material on-location in and near the Han River and in the Seoul sewer system.

I greatly enjoyed The Host when I watched it the first time several years ago, and on re-watching more carefully I still feel that way, although I can see the heavy-handedness of the social criticism better now. The movie was at its best in the comic mode and would have benefited from a somewhat lighter touch fusing the comedy and social criticism elements.

The Host runs 119 minutes. It was directed by Joon-ho Bong and stars Kang-ho Song, Hie-bong Byeon, Hae-il Park, Doona Bae, and Ah-sung Ko. A sequel is in pre-production.

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