South Korea’s highest grossing film of all time “The Host”, a new monster film, takes this genre to levels unknown previously with films like “Godzilla” and “The Blob”. It represents a significant advancement in the technology and a lesser advancement in narrative.
Seoul, 2000. An American army doctor (Scott Wilson) orders his assistant, a native South Korean, to dump bottles and bottles of formaldehyde into the drain, a drain running into the Han River, the major river running through the middle of Seoul. The reason? The bottles are covered with a layer of dust and the army doctor really dislikes dust. The assistant protests, but soon relents. Six years later, a food cart operator, Gang-Du (Kang-ho Song) falls asleep every time his dad, Hie-bong (Hie-Bong Byeon) is away from the stand for more than a few minutes. Soon, his daughter, Hyun-Seo (Ah-sung Ko) returns from school and they watch his sister compete in an archery tournament on television. Father and daughter are more like friends; Gang-du even seems to be a bit mentally challenged, like he is at the same level of maturity as his daughter. Then a monster appears in the river and starts to attack the people lounging by the side of the river. Gang-du and Hyun-Seo are chased by the beast and Dad tries valiantly to save his daughter, but the beast soon captures her and drags her away. Nam-Joo (Du-na Bae), the sister, returns from the tournament and they are joined by their brother, Nam-il (Hae-il Park), a young businessman annoyed at the distraction. They receive a call from the daughter’s cell phone and try to rescue her, fighting the local authorities, the police, the US Army (?) and ultimately, against the large monster.
Directed by Joon-ho Bong, the rights to “The Host” have already been purchased for an American remake, and it is easy to see why. The film’s monster elements are well-done, interesting and exciting. But the film suffers from a few uneven performances and some heavy handed political statements which ultimately slow down the proceedings.
From what I understand, the initial event is based on an actual event. The Korean government attempted to prosecute the guilty American, but the US wouldn’t hand over the man in question. According to IMDB, he was finally convicted in 2005, but didn’t serve a prison term. I always believe that a fantasy, science fiction, horror film, anything that is not normally something we would experience is more believable, has roots in reality. “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a great recent example of this; the fantasy world was rooted in the very real world of Spain during the last days of the Civil War. These elements of reality help us associate the more fantastical elements of these stories, making us more willing to accept them. While watching the film, I didn’t know that something like this actually happened, but I believed it, because it was convincingly done and seemed like something that could happen.
The monster, created by a special effects studio in San Francisco, is a very unusual thing. Part fish, part eel, part guppy and part frog, multiplied by a thousand (the suckers big and looks like a large “Alien”), the Monster initially appears hanging from underneath a bridge. People notice the thing and, curious, move closer to get a look. Then it drops into the water and swims towards the people. Moments later, attack.
The first time the Monster runs rampant is exciting and fun to watch. The beast moves fast and wreaks havoc on a small leisure area, where people are lounging in the sun next to the river. Naturally, Gang-du and his family will be in the center of the action, they are our entry into this world. The monster chases people back and forth, takes a few, but Gang-du tries to elude the beast, tries to keep his daughter safe.
The monster is fearsome, and dangerous, making it a little scary. Because it is fast, this adds to the suspense. You never know when or where it will pop up. It also appears to be smart and has a voracious appetite, adding to the scariness of the beast. When it grabs Hyun-Seo, the drama increases because Gang-du naturally fears his daughter is dead, then they receive a cryptic phone message indicating she might still be alive. The family bands together and starts to hunt for her. This leads the individual characters on ‘hero’s journeys’ of their own, until they have to come together and work together to fight the beast.
As the family comes together, and gets separated, during their battle with the monster, they face various obstacles. Many of these are also presented in a fairly realistic fashion, adding to the heightened level of suspense. Each is tested, some with frightening results.
The film is less successful as a political statement against the involvement of the US Government in this country and in this incident. As soon as the animal runs rampant, it attacks a US Citizen who is vacationing. Then the news is filled with stories of a virus the man contracted through the monster. Soon, the US Army has quarantined people, hunting for others who have come into contact with the beast, closing off entire areas and plans to use a chemical called “Agent Yellow”, not a very thinly veiled attempt to make a statement against Agent Orange. This is done in a rather sloppy fashion, and not fully integrated into the rest of the story. This brings the rest of the film down. In the big confrontation between the beast and ‘Agent Yellow’, the Army intends to dispense the chemical using a large yellow plastic ball on the end of a crane, which shoots the chemical in a large plume. Hopefully, their targeting system is much more accurate than the contraption looks, it resembles a large tinker toy. Of course, the chemical doesn’t have the intended effect and there are many shots of indigenous South Koreans suffering at the hands of the nasty American chemical.
These scenes are really more of a distraction, not necessary and detract from the overall quality of the rest of the film. The monster is a neat, unique creation which is scary, threatening and fun to watch. But when the film gets bogged down with all of the politics, it loses focus.
I didn’t really get what Kang-ho Song was trying to do as Gang-du. Initially, we see he is lazy and more interested in cutting corners than helping to make a success out of the family’s food van, very antithetical to the South Korean way of life. But when his daughter shows up, I initially thought he was an older, less intelligent brother. He seems to want to have this type of relationship with his daughter, but he really seems more mentally challenged than anything else. This is clearly done to make his actions throughout the rest of the film appear all the more heroic, but his portrayal is initially inconsistent.
During the last act, when the family has to come together again to defeat the creature, the film shifts again, delivering on the premise of the earlier story.
“The Host” is a good film, which benefits greatly from advanced special effects and suspenseful storytelling, but it suffers from an almost sophomoric attempt to make a political statement, slowing down the pace of the story, and interrupting the flow of horror, suspense and excitement.
I wonder if the American remake will have some sort of reference to terrorists trying to take over the water supply of St. Louis and they inadvertently create this beast who roams through the upper Mississippi river.