Host, The (2007)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/15/06 14:40:53

"Fighting giant monsters - the perfect family outing!"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2006 BOSTON FANTASTIC FILM FESTIVAL: "The Host" is one of the great success stories of Korean cinema; it shattered box office records in its native land to the point where other filmmakers were grumbling about it being difficult to get bookings for their films. Great success comes after great risk, though, and "The Host" occasionally feels overstuffed, as if filmmaker Bong Joon-ho feared that he'd never get a chance to make another big sci-fi adventure and accordingly crammed everything he could into this one.

Happily, the film is not simply throwing out monster movie clichés as viewed through a Korean lens. The opening scenes are wonderful twists on how these things usually play out: First, a darkly comic prologue (inspired by true events) where an American army technician orders his Korean assistant to pour noxious chemicals down a sink that drains directly into the Han River, and the camera pans past a truly astonishing number of empty bottles. After that, Bong wastes no time unleashing the monster upon the city of Seoul, but he's almost low-key in the way he does it. You almost have to squint to see it hanging off a bridge, and the filmmakers opt not to break out the shaky-cam or bombastic music as the creature emerges from the water and starts making things very unpleasant for anybody near the riverbank. Even as people start fleeing for their lives, the movie doesn't go into full, majestic shots meant to show the effects off or quick cuts and zooms meant to tell the audience that this situation is chaotic or that this detail is important. And by not dialing things up like that, he actually makes the situation even more tense and confusing - the way this first act is shot reinforces the environment's normalcy, except for that monster that keeps chasing people, making it more of a dangerous, frightening incursion.

Bong keeps that up right until the moment when slacker Park Kang-du (Song Kang-ho) grabs the wrong girl's hand, and turns back in horror to see a tentacle wrap around his 12-year-old daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung) and pull her away in slow motion. But for all it breaks out the action-movie theatrics, that moment also underscores what makes The Host different from the standard kaiju film (to steal a term from across the Sea of Japan) - the focus is not going to be on how scientists and soldiers combine to take the creature down - it's how the Park family struggles to rescue its youngest member in spite of the roadblocks thrown up by the military, who especially want Kang-du isolated, since the creature is believed to be a carrier for a deadly virus - the American soldier whom he helped try to hold off the creature has died a gruesome death.

The Parks are sketched out quickly enough that a person can get the basic idea of who they are right away; none of them ever really wanders far from the basic core of the character we see when they're introduced. That could make them seem bland or flat, but to the credit of both Bong and his cast, the five Parks seem like a real family. Song Kang-ho's Kang-du is the exception; he first appears dozing off at the counter of the family's convenience store and is initially painted as a simple screw-up. To be a screw-up, though, you have to be trying in the first place, and for all his brother berates him, he's one of the first trying to lead the creature away from other people during the initial attack. He's a guy whom you would trust to do the right thing, but not to do it very well, and Song does a fine job of getting that across.

The rest of the family is similarly good. Daughter Hyun-seo spends a good chunk of the movie trapped in the sewers where the creature nests and deposits the morsels it intends to eat later, and Ko Ah-sung does a very good job of showing her quickly growing from the average schoolgirl who is embarrassed by her dippy father to someone brave and tough enough to look after another kid who winds up in there with her and to try to escape. Byeon Hie-bong plays her grandfather; he's got a great way of getting across that family is everything and no sacrifice is too great without being schmaltzy about it; he'll call out his other children for sneering at Kang-du while still acknowledging that he can be a complete dumbass. The funny thing is, Kang-du is in many ways more functional than brother Nam-il, whose alcoholic unemployment is more disappointing because he's a college graduate; Park Hae-il does a fine job of playing him with a chip on his shoulder. Bae Du-na plays their sister Nam-ju as someone long on ability and short on confidence, and rather than just freezing like she does in a televised archery tournament before the attack, she takes it out on other people. They play off each other comfortably, like a real family, although I might have liked a little more pulling together and a little less goofy wrestling with each other in times of stress.

As soon as most of you read "archery", you probably figured out that flaming arrows would be involved in the final action scenes, and I'm not going to deny that. Heck, the way the film is set up, the native audience probably figured out Molotov Cocktails would be used because Nam-il is described as having been in college in the early/mid-nineties. The Host does lean a little heavily on the action-movie clichés at times. There are certainly some inventive scenes, such as Hyun-seo trying to escape her trap by dashing up the back of the sleeping creature, but there's also a lot of running around sewer tunnels. Some of the characters take an awful lot of abuse to still be standing by the end, sometimes a lot more than the folks who don't make it; dishing out all that abuse stretches the last act out a bit. I found it a little annoying that every crappy thing that happens seems to be directly or indirectly the fault of the United States, but that probably plays pretty well outside the U.S. these days. Still, the film occasionally seems to really work at shoehorning in new ways to blame America.

Which is a little ironic, since the filmmakers went with a U.S. company for visual effects (The Orphanage in San Francisco). It's a good decision, since the creature work is very nice: The first rampage scene is among the best sequences of its type I can remember, both in terms of looking good and being very well-directed. Bong and his co-writers Baek-Chul-hyun and Ha Won-jun have conceived a good monster (with, I believe, the help of WETA Workshops in the design phase); it's a gas to see it swing around on a bridge's underpinnings or regurgitate a bunch of bones or body parts. It's asymmetrical enough to look like a random mutation but doesn't go too far in the direction of not looking like something Mother Nature could push out on a bad day.

Even considering that the end isn't quite as good as the standout beginning (a very difficult bit to top), "The Host" is one of the better CGI-monster movies to hit screens in some time. It is a little overstuffed, particularly with comic relief and subplots that multiply toward the end, but there's a lot of good action/adventure stuffed in there, as well - not to mention much more connection to the characters than this kind of movie usually affords.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.