Revisiting movies I've recently acquired
The Host holds the distinction of being the first Korean film that I'd seen distributed in mainstream theaters as well as the first film that I'd seen in Los Angeles' ArcLight deluxe theater chain. Having seen director Bong Junho's previous films, I was ready for a treat, expecting, from the many reviews, to encounter a thriller more akin to Jaws than a comedy like Bong's Barking Dogs Never Bite, but it turns out that, while the film does have some thrills in it, like his first film, The Host blends in a strong comedic streak as well as his continuing commentary on social and governmental institutions, resulting in a film that more than just a sharp, but pulpy, monster movie, but a film that's a little bit more interesting, while still being just as fun, in Bong's off-kilter kind of way.
At the top of the film, an American scientist orders his Korean subordinate to dump a whole lot of formaldehyde down the drain and into the Han River. Then, one day, local layabout shopkeeper Gangdu (Song Gangho) and some other onlookers notice a creature in the water and proceed to provoke it by throwing food at it. It then proceeds to go on a rampage along the banks of the Han River, gobbling up or taking captive a number of people, including Gangdu's daughter, Hyeonseo (Go Aseong). The military steps in and as Gangdu, his father Huibong (Byeon Huibong), his unemployed college graduate brother Namil (Bak Haeil), and his professional archer sister Namju (Bae Duna) grieve, the government detains all those who have had contact with the creature in fear that the creature is host to a deadly virus. But when Gangdu gets a call from Hyeonseo one night and the authorities won't believe the family, they decide to take the matter into their own hands.
What makes The Host work so well, despite having elements of horror, thriller, drama and comedy all together is how tightly woven all these elements are together. Even more notable is how sharp each of those elements are. The comedy in the The Host is easily the strongest of Bong's films: even while retaining a dark edge, the absurdity is quite laughable, especially early on as the family loudly laments the loss of Hyeonseo and buffoonery runs amok, with both our protagonists and everyone else participating. What's even more impressive is how well crafted some of the entwining moments are, somehow managing to balance comedy, thrills and drama on a point, like a critical moment Huibong has with a rifle in a moment that's funny, tense and shocking all at the same time.
Furthermore, The Host does manage to take some time and build both the characters and their relationships as well, managing to comment on that micro level while also making larger statements about governmental incompetency on a local and international level. Some of these moments of criticism of institutions do tend to be a little too obvious to the point where they feel forced and are probably the weakest parts of the film. Also, the cost of working to develop all the characters in the family is that the film has a bit of a slow pre-finale as we pause the greater action to deal with what each family member is going through, which causes the urgency of the moment to get lost while the film makes some statements--and for all the time given, Namju's story still ends up being a little weak. However, the film manages to redeem itself with a strong finish.
This is all tied together with a strong directorial hand from Bong, which grants several scenes a lot of memorable stylistic flourish without being extremely overt, although Bong does betray a weakness, losing some credibility in his strongest statement scenes, especially with the presence of the Americans, who are pushed into caricatures. However, his capacity for thrills, honed on his previous two films translates well into the monster movie genre, especially in how well Bong manages to keep things funny while retaining urgency. Of course, a large part of why this film works so well too is the largely excellent performances by the entire talented cast, including the young Go Aseong, only a few weaknesses again with a tonal clash when the Americans show up. And this is all given a slick visual presentation with high production values and a non-laughable digital creature courtesy of WETA, which is something of a cross between an overgrown tadpole and a lungfish. It does occasionally betray some animation weaknesses, but is overall a credible work of animated threat, the design (called "Buscemi") managing to lend the creature some comedy while not losing its capacity to threaten the characters.
I still wouldn't say that The Host is flawless, as there is some storytelling inefficiency that happens due to the abundance of characters and some of Bong's commentary isn't quite as successfully integrated. However, the film is one of the best examples of an otherwise near-perfect balance of comedy, horror, thriller and drama, often all at the same time and twisted together congruently so that the film never feels like a chimera, but a whole experience that encapsulates these elements. As such, I think The Host is reasonably well regarded by critics and yet has plenty of comedy and thrills for the mainstream filmgoer to enjoy, earning well its box-office success as well. Yet another strong entry from this filmmaker, cast and crew. 9/10.
- Director: 봉준호
- Writers: 백철현, 봉준호, 하준원
- Principal Cast: 고아성, 박해일, 배두나, 변희봉, 송강호
- Website | | MySpace
- At Daum, IMDb, Naver, Wikipedia (en|ko)
- More Reviews: City on Fire, Far East Films, Hanguk Yeonghwa, Koreanfilm.org, VCinema
- Available at Amazon (US Region A Blu Ray) / (US Region 1 DVD) / (Instant), iTunes, and YesAsia (US Region A Blu Ray)