Thursday, 25 August 2011
Title: The Host
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Staring: Kang-ho Song, Hie-bong Byeon, Hae-il Park, Doona Bae, Ah-sung Ko
Plot: Gang-du (Song) is a slovenly snack bar worker whose ordinary and care free existence is thrown into chaos when a monster suddenly appears from the depths of the Han river, kidnapping his daughter Hyun-seo (Ko) and forcing him to band together with his eccentric family to rescue her.
Review: Despite receiving rave critical reviews upon its release, which saw it making the top ten lists of several critics, including (All mighty film making genius) Quentin Tarantino’s top 20 films released since 92, aswell as being one of the 1000 movies to see before you die. Despite all this praise I was not a fan the first time I saw this film with that opinion hardly changing the second time round, yet the positive reviews for this film continued to bombard me, with the film being frequently a topic of conversation, whenever I spoke to fellow film junkies about Asian cinema and it has since those original viewings made me question my opinion of this film and whether I had missed something that everyone else was seeing with this film.
Following on from the genre bending antics of his second feature “Memories of Murder” director Joon-ho here turns his attention to the Monster movie genre in particular the movies of the 1950’s and 60’s were creatures were frequently the result Radiation from Atomic Bombs or Chemicals (also frequently radioactive), with Joon-ho’s mutated tadpole (yes really) being a result of some 200 bottles of formaldehyde being dumped into the Han river, inspired largely by a scarily similar incident in 2000, were an American mortician working at the Yongsan Military Base, made the dubious decision of ordering his staff to pour 120 liters of formaldehyde down the Morgue drain and while it didn’t spawn any monsters in the Han river, which also serves as the source of Seoul’s drinking water, it did unsurprisingly for this reason spark much Anti-American feeling in South Korea, one of the themes hiding here beneath the B-movie exterior, along with themes of homeland security, pollution and government misinformation, but rather than preaching these opinions Joon-ho instead uses them as vague nods, to help ground his fantastical story into a more believable and easily recognizable and contextual framework.
Rather than play peek-a-boo with his creature or save it’s big revel for the third reel Joon-ho proudly unleashes his monster on an unsuspecting audience with barely fifteen minutes into the film, as he drops it from the Wonhyo Bridge and soon after on the general public lounging on the banks of the Han river, no doubt to down to the advantage of having a half decent monster, which he uses to power effect with a jaw dropping opening rampage shot from a ground level prospective which only further throws you into the ensuing chaos and confusion which erupts, as the monster sets about chowing down on the locals, with the creatures movements scarily lifelike as the creature charges through the panicking crowds, slipping on surfaces and destroying anything which happens to fall in it’s path, while also demonstrating some fantastical gymnastic ability as it swings around bridge beams by it’s tail.
At the centre of this reimagining of the monster movie is Gang-du, whom despite being a lazy bum, also is a dotting father to his feisty seventh grade daughter Hyun-seo, storing a empty noodle cup of coins to buy her a new phone, despite her frequently dismissing his attempts at being a good parent, with Gang-du being seen more as a big brother type figure to her than anything resembling her father, with the elderly Hee-bong (Beyon) struggling to keep his family together, especially with further issues coming from Gang-du’s sister and fading archery champion Nam-joo (Bae) and his brother the former activist turned unemployed College Graduate Nam-il (Park), who despite their individual quirks and strains caused by the lack of cash, they remain faithfully loyal to each other, something especially shown as they are forced to band together as makeshift monster hunters, to rescue Hyun-seo who herself is no damsel in distress, as she proves herself none the less resourceful as she attempts to orchestrate her own escape from the monsters sewer lair. What is special here though is the empathy that Joon-ho manages to extract from the audience, for these less than perfect characters, so that you actually feel for their cause and want to see them succeed even as the odds begin to mount against them, with Gang-du proving to be cinema’s least likely hero, with Joon-ho resisting the urge to pull a role reversal and suddenly turn his slow witted character suddenly into some form of heroic monster slayer, as so frequently seen in films which have come before it, with Joon-ho’s direction keeping all his actions like all the characters true to their individual characteristics.
While Gang-du and his family set out to hunt down the monster and rescue Hynn-seo, the military set about launching their multi-tiered clean up operation, with the survivors from the initial attack being rounded up and quarantined, while armed troops setup road blocks and begin fumigating the streets, in the lead up to the release of the biological agent known as “Agent Yellow” in an attempt to stem the release of a new virus the creature carries, though with the media being taken over and TV showing government hysteria and misinformation, it has to be questioned how much truth there is to the panic of a virus being carried by the creature.
While largely playing things straight Joon-ho still manages several moments of natural humour which add an additional layer of warmth to the family, who are frequently at the centre of these scenes, from Gang-du running behind a fumigation truck to the family surreally collapsing into hysterical mourning at a memorial for the victims of the monsters rampage. Outside of the family unit the film is also populated with humorous including a headphone wearing girl completely oblivious to the monster on a rampage and hordes of screaming people running past her, aswell as the equally amusing hazmat wearing scientist who slips on the floor and tries to cover for it by pretending nothing happened atoll. What is most interesting though is how suddenly Joon-ho switches the tone of the film from humorous to moments of sudden emotion caused by a sudden death, as frequently finds new ways of catching the audience off guard, while also reminding us how effective blood in the rain can look when used correctly much like the power of blood on snow and it’s an effect used to great power here during a pivotal scene.
While “The Host” might be a fun monster movie, but despite all the cleaver touches Joon-ho throws into the mix, it still suffers from a lagging middle section, which upon revisiting the film I now recognise as being the main cause of my frustration on previous viewings and certainly stops me from rating it as highly as other critics, while at the same time I don’t deny that it’s a film still worth watching, just perhaps it’s best watched without the hype and with the expectations built up by exaggerated reviews, for as fun as it is “The Host” is certainly not as essential as most would have you think it is.