Saturday, April 10, 2010

My best movies of the decade: The Host

The Host (Gwoemul) (2006)


Monster movies seem to have fallen out of fashion. These days, if you're not a zombie or a vampire (thanks for nothing, Stephenie Meyer), chances are you're not getting a movie deal. Except, that is, if you manage to grab the attention of Bong Joon-ho, perhaps the best director to come out of South Korea in recent years, in which case you may end up starring in what I consider to be the best monster movie since Ridley Scott's Alien.
The Host opens in 2000 on an American military base near Seoul, where an American mortician orders his Korean assistant to empty some 200 bottles of formaldehyde down the drain, which leads to the Seoul sewers, and from there to the Han River. Sounds preposterous, doesn't it? Well, that part actually happened, and understandbly caused quite the uproar in South Korea. I'm assuming the part where the toxic pollution leads to the creation of a mutant monster is pure invention, though. We see the monster develop over the course of the next few years, from a tiny, fishlike creature caught and released by two fishermen, to the huge, dark thing lurking underwater glimpsed by a man about to commit suicide by jumping from a bridge into the river.
The next time the creature is seen, it's on the banks of the Han river, where the Park family (a deliciously dysfunctional family that would be at home in many an American indie comedy) operates a snack stand. The monster attacks just as slow-witted Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), his father Hee-bong (Byeon Hee-bong) and his daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seong, above being snatched up by the creature) are watching Gang-du's younger sister Nam-joo (Bae Doona) compete in a national archery tournament on television. The monster proceeds to wreak havoc along the banks of the river (as monsters are wont to do), before escaping, taking poor Hyun-seo with it. The Parks, joined by Gang-du's younger brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il), former student/political activist turned jobless alcoholic, decide to go looking for the monster and for Hyun-seo. As if things weren't already complicated enough, Gang-du also happens to have been exposed to the creature's blood, which makes him a prime target for the Korean and American authorities, now trying their best to identify and contain the virus the monster may be carrying.
Part of the joy of watching a Bong Joon-ho film comes from the way the South Korean director shamelessly mixes genres. The Host is part monster movie, part dark comedy (as the Parks, who have been locked up in a gymnasium with other survivors of the attack, are crying and pulling their hair out in grief, a woman is being reprimanded in the background for not having parked her car correctly), part social commentary, and part family drama. The monster's first appearance, masterfully crafted and terribly effective, gives the tone of the movie: the creature is first seen hanging upside down from a bridge, and is then "fed" beer cans and peanuts by passersby speculating on its nature ("perhaps it's a dolphin," one of them says, prompting you to doubt whether they've ever seen a dolphin), before disappearing underwater and resurfacing only to attack the unsuspecting onlookers. To say that the scene then devolves into a chaotic mess would be putting it mildly, as the beast proceeds to trample everything and everyone that stands in its way, changing direction seemingly at random, while Bong Joon-ho films the ensuing panic and mayhem with obvious delight and enough enthusiasm to make you forget any flaw in the CGI (which nevertheless makes for a much more interesting monster than, say, the smooth-looking Medusa of the recent Clash of the Titans). Fifteen minutes into the movie, and you already know you're in for one hell of a ride.
From then on, Bong Joon-ho shifts effortlessly from one genre to another as he follows the Parks in their hunt for the monster (and the monster in its hunt for more victims). Bong Joon-ho's a master of misdirection and repeatedly shatters expectations, often to great comedic effect: see the Korean official who, in order to calm a confused and hostile crowd, proposes to turn on the TV and watch what the news have to say about the attack, only to realize that perhaps for the first time in film history, the news don't seem to be discussing the movie's events as they're happening. Or what about this mainstay of the family drama, the scene where the outcast's backstory is revealed, leading to a new understanding of his behavior? Here Hee-bong is the one doing the explaining ("Do you really think your brother so pathetic?" he asks Nam-il and Nam-joo, who both nod yes without hesitation), but his children fall asleep halfway through, leaving the patriarch to talk to himself and displacing most of the scene's emotional impact. "Maybe he didn't have enough protein growing up," Hee-bong says as Nam-il snores lightly in the background, "so that's why, every now and then, he dozes off like a sick rooster."
The premise of the movie obviously lends itself to some biting social commentary, and the ghost of SARS (now thoroughly forgotten) is evoked as the monster is thought by Koreans and Americans alike to be the host of an unknown virus (hence the title). The Parks are the victims of a wave of manufactured paranoia, and when it is announced that the allegedly contaminated Gang-du exhibits flu-like symptoms, we see people at a crosswalk casting suspicious glances at and scuttling away from a poor man who just so happens to be coughing a little. If the monster is created, and the situation eventually made worse, by authoritative and meddlesome Americans, Korean authorities aren't exactly paragons of efficiency either--rather, they're ineffectual buffoons at best, subservient sycophants at worst. The same Korean official who tries turning on the TV to quiet the crowd is first seen entering the gymnasium wearing a hazmat suit and wielding a megaphone, tripping over himself and barely breaking his fall with his hand, before straightening up with a stern look on his face, as if daring anyone to comment on what just happened. The doctors and policemen the Parks encounter at the hospital aren't much better, first refusing to listen to Gang-du as he explains that Hyun-seo is still alive, then failing to prevent the Parks from escaping in one of the funniest chase scene ever filmed ("She's your only sister! How could you forget her!" Hee-bong berates his son after Nam-joo fails to make it to the getaway van and they have to drive around the parking lot at what seems like a sluggish pace to pick her up).
The Host culminates in an appropriately awesome finale, in which the Parks work together to bring the monster down (if that's a spoiler, you need to watch more movies. Seriously). And perhaps even more appropriately, Bong Joon-ho doesn't provide us with a neat happy ending. The monster's death, like the film itself, is a messy and strangely beautiful affair. Neatness doesn't belong here, and would just cheapen the whole thing.

1 comment:

GregM said...

Nice review, and one that just got tweeted by Ebert, no less. I enjoyed "The Host" when I saw it, though I still find that ending strangely unsatisfying. (I guess it's not that strange, given how events in the movie play out. That last shot is thoroughly depressing.)