March 8, 2007

The Host: Something fishy this way comes

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Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): ****

A mutant monster - looking hideously like a giant semi-evolved catfish -emerges from Seoul's Han River after years of toxic dumping, taking its revenge by terrorizing the city's people. The Host's director Bong Joon-Ho has said the film's initial catalyst - in which an American researcher makes his Korean assistant dump gallons of toxic chemicals down the drain - is actually based on a real incident (and thank God nothing like that could ever happen in the States). The film also obviously has antecedents in allegorical horror films like Godzilla and It's Alive, and this mix of the immediately real and the fantastical are woven nearly seamlessly in this enthralling new horror film.

The story centers on the multi-generational, dysfunctional Park family lead by patriarch, grandpa (Hie-bong Byeon), who runs a small food stand with his slothlike son Gang-du (Kang-ho Song, here with blonde highlights). The latter's daughter Hyun-seo, a precocious schoolgirl, is swept away by the beast early on in the film, in the monster's first attack, a spectacular riverside set-piece which sets the story in motion. Father and his three adult children - Gang-du, aimless, unemployed alcoholic Nam-Il and Nam-Joo, a champion archer (and you just know that's gonna come in handy at some point) - set off to rescue Hyun-seo when it becomes clear she's still alive. (I won't spoil how they find out she's still alive, or where she is, but that plot point manages to be both unbelievable and startlingly real.)

The authorities get in the way, telling the public that the creature is the host of a deadly virus, quarantining anyone who's come in contact with it -which includes Gang-du. Bong seems to take a bemused approach to both Korea's and the American government's joint incompetence and dishonesty. The film's mix of social and political commentary is nothing new, and the American characters veer a bit toward caricatures here, but given the government's record both environmentally and in foreign relations in a post-SARS (which is referenced in the film) and post-9/11 world, their behavior is not that much of a stretch. Preying on fear and the human need to be protected and directed, the government depicted here, working in tandem with the media, exploits the people's disorientation to control them. In short, we have met the monster and he is us.

But the film is far from a heavy-handed allegory. It gives us what we want--a threatened family versus a scary monster.

The CGI-designed monster is most impressive, even if it does at times remind you of its computer origins, it's never less than sinister, with incredible care going in to every weighted step, and every acrobatic move (it swings around like a giant trapeze artist). And as terrifying as it is, by the end, just as in King Kong and the original Godzilla, one can't help but feel sympathetic for the poor mutated beast. It's dark, dank, drippy lair in the city's sewers are a terrifying set, and with each additional victim drop-off becomes a place of horrors for Hyun-seo, making it all the more audacious if she can somehow manage to escape.

Bong Joon-Ho's earlier film the mystery Memories of Murder - in which Kang-ho Song played a bumbling detective - practiced uneasy tonal shifts--in that case, wavering between crime drama and comedy, slapstick and violence--and The Host, too, shifts between comedy and horror, but rarely missteps. Those who want their horror straight, no chaser, may have trouble with the balance but I found the mix a relief. At last a serious horror film that doesn't take itself seriously. Long but never feeling overlong, the film is perfectly paced between breathless action sequences, and quieter moments for character reflection and transformation, all leading up to a perfect, subversive and poignant, finale.

Section o' *SPOILERS*: I did wonder a couple of times, why does it take anyone so long to try to eradicate the monster? The virus is just a cover up, but since they obviously know there's an actual creature at large, and the US army is involved, you'd think they'd be trying a militaristic extermination long before they unleash the "agent yellow" chemical.

Interestingly, too, that the film begins with a man committing suicide in the river. With references to depression, suicide and unemployment - and Nam-Il is turned in by a friend who works for a telecom firm, although the friend admits to being in debt equal to his yearly salary - The Host also seems to be commenting on Korea's economy and the pressure to succeed, to become wealthy or die trying... Well, we wouldn't know anything about that in America, thank God.



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Posted by cphillips at March 8, 2007 11:23 AM