Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Host (2006)

The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)
Korean Title: Gwoemul

Bong Joon-ho begins The Host with a sequence inspired by actual events: in a nearby U. S. military facility, an American orders his Korean subordinate to dispose bottles of formaldehyde in the facility's sink, which would eventually end up in the Han River. The subordinate unwillingly follows his superior's orders; grey smoke appears from the sink while Bong horizontally moves his camera to show us the multitudes of formaldehyde bottles that have been emptied to the river. Bong cuts to two men fly fishing in the banks of the Han; one fisherman observes a weird creature swimming in his bait cup --- Bong captures this moment in the evolutionary tale of The Host's monster in a wide shot of the Han River; we get a glimpse of the metropolis blanketed by a thick layer of pollution and smog. We initially get a sense of what Bong is getting at --- it's not necessarily finger pointing, but he makes it a point that the monster that we will soon see rampaging and murdering did not appear from thin air, but is a result of a combination of human or more specifically Korean errors (pollution, American presence).

The Host is a monster flick in the same vein as Ishirô Honda's Gojira (1954). Both films are reactionary social commentaries, while delivering the no-brainer fun and punch of its genre. However, Instead ofBong's film features a family in its center: the store-owning grandfather (Byun Hee-bong), absent-minded father (Song Kang-ho), his two more successful but not-that-successful siblings, Olympic archer sister (Bae Doo-na) and alcoholic and unemployed recent college grad brother (Park Hae-il). The family (a sort of opposite universe version of Brad Bird's superhero family in The Incredibles (2004)) unite to try to dodge governmental intrusion (the family is branded as infected by a deadly virus supposedly carried by the monster) while inching their way to salvaging Song Kang-ho's on screen daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung) from the monster's lair.

The monster (a CGI-creation by San Francisco-based Orphanage FX) is an intriguing anomaly. It is no doubt a mutant drafted by years of environmental mismanagement; appendages sprout out of its armored body which looks like a mixture of a legged amphibian, a trout, and a parasitic worm. The CGI-work is near-seamless and Bong makes sure that the monster actually inhabits its environment; its tail makes it adept in bridge acrobatics, its fish-like fins make it superiorly amphibious, its gastro-intestinal make-up is developed for its rather bashful means of feeding on its victims (the monster keeps its victims safe in its inner-sewer lair to feast on them moments after their capture). The design is absolutely horrific --- definitely years and technologies after the rubber suited men/monsters of Gojira and its numerous subsequent spin-offs.

It's all superbly juggled by director Bong. His natural knack for comedy, his talent for judicious and economically placed characterization, his visual derring-do (the initial sequences with the monster features it basking under the bright rays of the Korean sun; very difficult and brave especially since he's using an entirely CGI-creation) which inevitably works very well, his satirical stance on pollution and America's need to invade on other nation's sovereignty (and the accompanying problem of Korea's eternal subservient attitude to America's bullying), his impressive gift of appropriating these big issues in what essentially is an intimate quest to save a family member: all these positive traits turn The Host from an ordinary monster flick to what may be an instant classic that can proudly sit beside the most memorable cinematic monsters of all time.

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