Director: Bong Joon-ho
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This past year, the Chicago International Film Festival came and went without me being able to score a ticket to see the Korean sensation The Host. This film broke box office records in Korea—rare for a homegrown movie—and has been hailed by many critics as the much-welcome return of the good, old-fashioned monster movie. The only reason I can see for making this claim is that, like the movie, the monster is homegrown, not the product of alien invasions. Nonetheless, that fact is the only thing distinguishing The Host from another film almost identical in form—Steven Spielberg’s The War of the Worlds (2005). I believe this resemblance accounts for the popularity of The Host in Korea, an irony not lost on director Bong, who takes every opportunity to make Americans look like idiots and bullies. And I say “bully” to Bong for blowing a raspberry at American movies and creating a film both scarier and more original than any recent product from Hollywood.
The film begins with a stupid and thoughtless act by an American scientist (Scott Wilson) working in Seoul. After showing a prissy fastidiousness about the amount of dust in his laboratory, he instructs his Korean assistant (Pil-sung Yim) to pour what looks like a warehouse full of formaldehyde down the drain. The assistant protests that there are strict policies for disposing of hazardous materials and that the runoff will go directly into the Han River. Nonetheless, he is made to do as instructed. The consequences of this capricious order are telegraphed as we watch a hokey haze of tiny toxic clouds waft from the sink where the dubious assistant labors long into the night.
We know that the worst has happened when a man fishing with his friend in the Han catches a disgusting-looking animal in his drinking cup. “Is it a mutation?” one asks the other, and then proceeds to drop the cup. “That was close,” said the first fisherman, rescuing his cup from the murky depths. “My daughter gave me that cup!” Although they can’t know it, they are fiddling while Seoul is about to burn.
Some time later, a nice summer day finds many people picnicking near the Han. At a grocery stand lays our hero Gang-du Park (Kang-ho Song), a dyed-blond hulk of a man sound asleep at the counter. His father Hie-bong Park (Hie-bong Byeon) comes up to him, lifts Gang-du’s head up and scrapes off the coins that have clung to his cheek. He tells Gang-du to grill three squid for the people sitting on mat 4. The sleepy son grabs some dried squid and takes them to the grill, breaking off a tentacle to chew on himself.
Gang-du’s tween-aged daughter Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko) calls him into the stand to watch the national archery finals. Gang-du’s sister Nam-joo (Du-na Bae) is odds-on favorite to win the gold medal. Unfortunately, the people at mat 4 were not happy to receive a nine-legged squid. Gang-du is sent to bring them a whole squid. On the lawn, some people comment on a large shadow in the water. As people come down to the river’s edge to look, Gang-du picks up a beer can and throws it into the water. The beer can apparently is pulled down quickly by the creature. After that, the assembled crowd starts throwing anything they can get their hands on into the water. Of course, instead of feeding the equivalent of a cuddly, but safely caged polar bear, the picnickers soon discover they’ve been encouraging something far from cuddly. Quickly, an enormous creature obviously inspired by Predator leaps onto land and starts grabbing people in its enormous maw. A pandemonium of fleeing people, an idiotically courageous American, a trailer-load of sitting ducks, and of course, Gang-du and Hyun-seo, have their close encounters. When Gang-du and Hyun-seo lose contact, the creature manages to wrap its tail around the girl and flee back to the river. For the rest of the film, the Park family will have to elude both the creature and the authorities that are attempting to quarantine them as they make superhuman efforts to rescue Hyun-seo.
The first third of this film is riotously funny. For example, a supposedly makeshift memorial to the dead is set up in a nearby gymnasium. We see an entire wall carefully lined with beautifully framed photos draped with black ribbons and adorned with flowers and offerings, a sly dig at ancestor worship. The weeping of the Park family for Hyun-seo takes on high comic proportions as we watch them in an overhead shot writhing on the floor in almost a mockery of grief. More expressions of familial feeling are given the wink and nudge. For example, Gang-du’s sister and brother Nam-il (Hae-il Park) complain about their narcoleptic brother to their father. Hie-bong starts to ramble on about his guilt at never being home to care for the motherless boy and not giving him enough protein to eat. As he gnashes his teeth in despair, all three siblings have nodded off to sleep.
The most comically bizarre moments are reserved for Americans. The story has gotten around that the monster is the host of a deadly virus. An American commander who came in contact with the monster apparently has died of some plague-like disease, weeping buboes covering his face like bee stings. The Parks initially escape quarantine to search for Hyun-seo, but Gang-du is recaptured. He is approached by a Korean doctor (Brian Rhee) and a cross-eyed American doctor (Paul Lazar) who appear initially sympathetic to his pleas. After the Korean attendants are sent away, the American doctor confides that there were no traces of a virus in the American commander. He looks at Gang-du and taps the front of his skull. “It’s here. It’s in there. I’m going to find that virus.” Gang-du is prepared for brain surgery. When he escapes yet again, he runs through a supposedly secure area where the American troops are drinking beer and barbecuing steaks as though they were in the largest Green Zone in the world.
The Host, however, is a proper monster movie. There are moments of great tension and jump-out surprises—one even led me to scream out loud for the only time in my moviegoing career. The movie becomes a desperate race against time as we see the enormous danger Hyun-seo is in, trapped in a sewer that is periodically visited by the monster who regurgitates human bones and then goes looking for more to eat. A scene where she attempts to escape by climbing up the back of the apparently sleeping monster is one of the most perfectly pitched I’ve ever seen, every edit and shot perfectly conceived and constructed for maximum effect. The Park family’s heroism and ingenuity are testament to the strong ties that bind them together and give audiences a reason to care deeply about what happens to them.
The Host picks up the tradition of Japanese monster movies in pointing to American contamination of the environment as a source of nature’s anger and need for revenge. However, there is a very modern lesson in this cautionary tale, especially for Koreans. It is not Americans, but North Koreans, who are playing with nuclear fire this time. The anxiety that makes The Host work so well shows an astute reading of Asia’s new nuclear landscape.
It was my privilege to view this film in the elegantly preserved Landmark Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Watching a humanivorous monster while flanked on either side by a total of six Buddhas, each with a glowing third eye watching me, made me feel very safe.