Sunday 2 May 2010

The Host (2006)

Director: Bong Joon-ho
Stars: Song Kang-ho, Byun Hee-bong, Park Hae-il, Bae Doo-na and Ko Ah-sung

As anyone who reads this blog regularly must realise, I've become rather fond of Korean cinema. One great Korean film that's stayed with me long after I watched it is 2003's twisted crime thriller Memories of Murder and I was pleased to see its director Bong Joon-ho doing so well at the Asian Film Awards this year. He won as Best Screenwriter, along with Park Eun-kyo, for his 2009 film Mother, which also won for Best Film and Best Actress. He was also nominated as Best Director but lost out to Chuan Lu for City of Life and Death. So in tribute, Mother not being available yet, I decided to seek out his modern day monster movie, The Host, which became the highest grossing Korean movie ever. It also won Best Film at the Asian Film Awards, as well as Best Cinematographer, Best Visual Effects and a Best Actor award for Song Kang-ho who had been so good in Memories of Murder as well as Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and JSA: Joint Security Area.

As if to highlight just how much depth can be put into a monster movie, this one begins with a rather overt political statement. An American military pathologist orders his Korean subordinate to dump a couple of hundred dusty bottles of formaldehyde down the sink, knowing full well that it's going to end up in the Han River as a classic example of illegal pollution. 'Let's try to be broadminded about this,' he tells him and we might be excused for thinking about anti-American propaganda if only it wasn't based on a real life event, a rather politically charged one. The US refused to hand over the pathologist, who was convicted in absentia and from what I can find may still be in the same job today. Here we see nothing more about him, but the formaldehyde is set up to be the cause of a small fish with many tails swimming around the river two years later, that proceeds to mutate and combine with a suicide to become the creature that we see in the modern day.

We're being introduced to the Park family, a dysfunctional but fascinating bunch of characters who run a snack bar by the river, when it unfolds itself from the bridge, causes chaos and plunges the Parks into even more. Song Kang-ho plays Park Gang-du, who is mildly retarded and works at the snack bar owned by his father, Hee-bong. He has a daughter himself, thirteen year old Hyun-seo, by whom he tries to do right but tends to fail pretty dismally. He can't even buy her a mobile phone that doesn't embarrass her, let alone turn up for her parents day at school. She has to make do with Uncle Nam-il, a college graduate who has turned into a slacker who's rather fond of the bottle. Rounding out the bunch is Nam-joo, who we initially see on television because she's competing in the national archery tournament. She takes home the bronze medal but could have won if only she hadn't taken so long to take her final shot.

Gang-du is right there when the creature first appears. He throws a can of beer at it and thinks it's cute when it swallows it whole. Next thing he knows it's running down the river bank towards him and his customers, spilling them into the river and eating them alive. Only he and an American sergeant attempt to fight back, hitting the creature with a street sign. The sergeant gets eaten but Gang-du escapes, with some of the thing's blood spattered on his cheek. Unfortunately when it leaps back into the river it takes young Hyun-seo with it, as Gang-du grabbed the wrong hand when trying to help his daughter get out of its path. To add to their troubles, the authorities promptly take the whole family into protective custody after finding out about the blood. Apparently the US sergeant survived, only to fall prey to a virus that the creature is apparently hosting, one that mysteriously doesn't seem to affect anyone else.
Made for a mere $10m, a huge amount in Korean cinema but not a heck of a lot anywhere in the west, the monster is amazing for such a budget, a weird fish man hybrid that runs on its front legs and drags its huge tail behind. What's most amazing is that the film ignores the standard monster movie rulebook, providing not just a glimpse but an entire extended scene with it running rampant right at the beginning of the film. The monster is also rather small by Asian standards, not just the Japanese perennials from Gojira on down but Korea's own monster too, Yonggary. It's a memorable creation though, designed by Chin Wei-chen with an S shaped spine so that it undulates and flips itself end over end when swinging under bridges. The modelling was done by Peter Jackson's unparalleled Weta Workshop in New Zealand; the animatronics were by John Cox's Creature Workshop which won an Oscar for Babe; and the CGI was by The Orphanage, which has films like Hellboy, Sin City and The Day After Tomorrow to its credit.

What makes this film stand apart from most of its modern day rivals is that all this wonderful effects work doesn't detract from the story. Unusually for a monster movie, we're really drawn into the lives of the central characters, not all of whom make it out alive. Not one member of the Park family is a throwaway and neither are the homeless man and the street urchin who get smaller parts later in the film. They all have their moment of heroism but they're all substantially flawed individuals too. Such a set of believable human beings is almost unheard of in a monster movie. It's also refreshing to see the Parks demonstrate their dysfunction as a family unit in no uncertain terms without ever becoming pitiful or pathetic, while managing to team up to escape from hospital together and attempt to track down the creature and by extension Hyen-Seo. As with Memories of Murder, Song Kang-ho only leads a superb cast, Ko Ah-sung especially also shining as young Hyen-Seo.

The political depth is palpable and there's a good deal of anti-US sentiment, not just through the reenactment of the infamous formaldehyde incident that sets up the story but through further American attitudes depicted throughout the film. With the exception of the heroic US sergeant who takes on the monster at the beginning, every instance of an American on screen is another opportunity to deepen the conspiracy. The virus is a fraud that echoes the non-existent WMDs of Saddam Hussein as a disinformation ploy. The authorities even decide, against public opposition and widespread demonstration, to use an American chemical called Agent Yellow against the monster, a transparent reference to Agent Orange, the defoliant the US used during the Vietnam War which led to an estimated 400,000 deaths and disabilities and half a million children born with birth defects. What's less remembered is that they also used in Korea in the late sixties.

To be fair, the South Korean authorities don't get much of a smoother ride. They are depicted variously as inept, corrupt or just uncaring. The first authority figure we see, some sort of official in a protective yellow hazard suit, is tasked with informing the family members mourning their dead at a communal shrine that they need to undergo decontamination in light of the virus attacking the American sergeant. He tries to do so by switching on the news and when he finds the TV unresponsive flounders around until panic sets in. Doctors simply ignore Gang-du's pleas that his daughter is alive, even when she rings him from the sewer where the creature has dumped her, assuming that he's in shock and not bothering to even check into his mental state before the incident. There's very little attempt to catch the creature, except to overkill it with Agent Yellow and there are plenty of demonstrations against the government's actions.

In fact the film has so little that's positive to say about either the Americans or the South Korean authorities that the North Koreans praised the film to high heaven, hardly a standard thing for them to do, given the continued strained relations between the two countries. The South Korean public either didn't care about the political elements, which don't bog down the story in the slightest, or appreciated the sentiments expressed, because they flocked to the film. It broke records from the opening weekend and, going strictly by the numbers of tickets sold, a quarter of the population saw it during its first month in theatres. Given that this is the country with the highest broadband adoption and the fastest average internet speed in the world, this reinforces the message that the best way to beat piracy is simply to make good movies. The Host still sits at the top of the box office list four years after its release with no sign of giving way.

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