Monday, March 19, 2007
Soon after the strange creature rises from the Han River, making its first appearance in The Host, a monster movie from Korea, the title of the movie becomes clear: the creature is the host of a possible virus that threatens the populace of South Korea. But soon, the title also applies to the bumbling hero, Gang-Du, who was sprayed in the face with some of the creature’s blood and could also be hosting the virus and, as a result, is poked and prodded and treated like chattel by the authorities. Then as the film unfolds further, the host of the virus may very well be those authorities - the American military presence that still exists since the 1950’s in South Korea. After all, it was a US Military official who orders toxic chemicals are poured into the Han River, which, 6 years later, results in this monster. Then, the US sends in the CDC to help with the possible problem of the virus while also making a hero of a US serviceman who succumbs to the virus. And they may or may not be holding back some pertinent facts.
Unlike classic monster movies – like, for example, one of my all-time favorites Them - where the government and military are the heroes protecting the people from the otherworldly threat, in The Host this same intervention creates miscommunication and bureaucracy. The suspicion and cynicism directed at the military is a reflection of the current time. Here we have the authorities acting as they wish against a creature they don’t attempt to understand. The face-off climaxes with the release of a weapon to fight the creature among protests by citizens uncertain and suspicious of the way events are being handled.
Working their way through all this is the Park family. Hyun-seo, daughter of Gang-Du, is last seen wrapped in the tail of the amphibious monster that disappears under the river. The family has reason to believe that she is still alive, trapped beneath the river in a sewer. Because the authorities won’t help, the family - Gang-Du’s father, Hie-bong, the owner of a foodstand where Gang-Du also works; his brother, Nam-il, a disillusioned college graduate and current ne'er-do-well; and his sister Nam-Joo, an accomplished archer - band together to rescue Hyun-seo. The family’s quest against both the government and the monster creates a tension from which humor (many times uncomfortably hilarious slapstick scenes), warmth, and, of course, the usual family dysfunction exist.
As for the monster part of this monster movie, The Host doesn’t rely on quick editing to manufacture scares. Nor does it pile on the gore. Two of the best scenes in The Host represent a tour-de-force of directing by Joon-ho Bong. He leaves the action off-screen long enough to fool the audience into thinking one thing happens only to reveal that another has. By slowly unfolding the scenes - each one represents only a few seconds of time - and allowing us to breath a sigh of relief makes the revelation of the true terrible reality to resonate all the more.
The crowd I saw The Host with reacted the same way to both these scenes – gasps of surprise then a slow murmur of “oh no” buzzed throughout the theatre – which only drives home the humanism that Joon interjects into the movie. Sure, it’s a big monster from the river, but what the monster’s rampage tells us about our own dealings with family and society is where the real movie magic happens.