The top-grossing film in Korea for 2006 was inspired by Hollywood and Japanese monster films. It is a tricky thing; there is just too much temptation for disaster, and too many things to go wrong. Critics have compared "THE HOST" to "Jaws" which I think has little to no merit; this film is a different animal. South Korea's shot at making a monster film was successful all over Asia that a sequel is in the works. Director Bong Jang-Ho (Memories of Murder) blends spectacle, familial emotions and even throws in a bit of satire. "The Host" does something unexpected, by sidestepping the usual "monster on a rampage-bent on destruction" premise, it does something unexpected, and it focuses on its characters. (which is why it may have been compared to "Jaws")
The movie establishes itself as we see Hee-Bong (Byun Hee-Bong), the owner of a food stand by the Han River serving beer and grilled squid to his customers who want to hang out in the sun. His son, Kang-Du (Song Kang-Ho, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) is a somewhat slow mentally, but not exactly handicapped--Gang-Du is motivated and inspired by his daughter, Hyun-Seo (Ko Ah-Sung). When a large creature emerges from the Han River, trashing cars, killing and devouring people, Kang-Du plays the opportune hero--but in doing so, his daughter gets grabbed by the creature. It leaves her father a shocked wreck of a human being. Rounding up the rest of the family, Nam-Il is an unemployed worker and amateur archer Nam-Ju (Bae Doo-Na) are about to mourn their loss; when the Korean government grabs every person who may have been exposed to the creature to keep them in quarantine. The authorities fear that the monster may be infected by a virus and they give Kang-Du special attention since he actually had a little blood of the creature on him. The family had all but given up hope, that is until Kang-Du receives a cell phone call from Hyun-Seo and now the family busts out of quarantine to rescue Kang-Du's daughter…
"The Host" avoids most of the usual clichés seen in most monster films. There is no flag-waving or display of Korea's military power to take out the creature. Director Bong Jang-Ho does however, pitches in a few political references and some barbs about the media. It also does some finger-pointing as the film's opening act is based on a true event when an American coroner dispenses orders to a Korean employee in 2000 to dump excess amounts of formaldehyde into the Han River which caused the creature's mutation. Americans also get relentlessly grilled. When the family becomes aligned for the common cause of finding the child, aligning themselves against this biological threat also serves as a reflection of the times--as they spend more effort in fighting off military personnel, they are chased by health professionals and other branches of the government.
The film does express the idea that the government may not be there to help you, and all that you have is each other--as our troubled family gets more grief and problems getting to their goal from authority figures than from the monster itself. It is a sad state of mind to be sure, and definitely serves up an emotional loneliness and alienation--part of it comes from your country will not help you and the other part is that your own countrymen can turn against you. That one such disaster can reveal the conventions of government, that its beliefs and structure may be less civilized underneath its surface. The center of "The Host" also goes into a family's loss of a child--which such tragedy is definitely brought to full circle with a single line in the film; "Have you smelled it?" Byun Hee-Bong's iconic line expresses the sadness that can rot your stomach. The film's familial themes are powerful as their loss leads them against capricious forces.
Amid the film's emotional barbs about the government, the media, student culture, the recent SARS epidemic and even the United States, "The Host" manages to find a sense of humor. The film's satirical nods are darkly funny; the expectations of suffering are turned into a comical farce when the family bursts into overdone histrionics under the presumption that Hyun-Seo is dead. The cast is excellent, and their characterizations work well together. The family is flawed, they bicker and argue, they fight and barely get along but somehow they find the strength to see things through. It is one admirable trait, and while they're not the most sympathetic bunch, they are very human, this quality makes them admirable.
The creature's designs are somewhat slug-like--ugly, slimy and clever. The CGI-generated monster is quite good, and it does look very UGLY. The monster itself may need some development, and I feel that at times the monster doesn‘t get its due. It does display intelligence, as it mars Hyun-Seo's attempts to escape while protecting another young boy (Lee Dong-Ho) from its clutches. It is not a horror film following usual conventions. True, the usual rules apply: kids and dogs don't die, old folks and shady folks die. There's some cliché to it, but the screenplay manages to subvert many others as it exposes mortal danger at every turn. The film does have a great man vs. monster match-up but on this "The Host" falters a little bit. There are few clashes with the creature, and what little there was, didn't match the raw mayhem brought about in its first appearance. The monster isn't your frenzied, destructive monster--it reacts to a recognizable emotion. It is hungry and it does what it does because it needs to feed. I assume that our creature somehow went stealth-like after its first attack because it got hurt, but there are several missed opportunities that the monster should have been more (ahem) developed.
After all is said and done, "The Host" manages to sidestep Hollywood conventions that it avoided a super-happy ending and your stereotypical loud explosions that seems to be the tread in monster films; we get some satire regarding biological agents and dumb law enforcement. Bong Jang-Ho's film is impressive and as good a monster film can be. It's paced exceptionally well, and the bits of humor do help it along; there is a very effective sense of human drama about it that it feels like a melancholy. "The Host" carried a lot of substance and does it so with style.
I am in for "The Host 2"!
Highly Recommended! [4 Stars]
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The Host (괴물, Gwoemul - "Monster") is a 2006 South Korean monster film, which also contains elements of comedy and drama films. The film was directed by Bong Joon-ho, who also co-wrote the screenplay, along with Baek Chul-hyun.
Starring in the film as members of an unremarkable family thrust into the middle of extraordinary events were Song Kang-ho, Byeon Hee-bong, Park Hae-il, Bae Doona and Ko Ah-seong. A rare combination of blockbuster plot and political commentary, the film also deals with the implications of America's military presence in Korea.
Following the success of the director's previous work, Memories of Murder, The Host was heavily anticipated and hyped. It was released on a record number of screens in its home country ...