Monday, October 15, 2012

괴물 (The Host) (Bong, 2006) - OCTOBER IS HORROR

What do you get when you mix the threat of Godzilla, the family dysfunctionality from Malcolm in the Middle, the genre-bending of Shaun of the Dead, the earnest humor of Sam Raimi's work and the bureaucratic apathetic nightmare of Brazil? Well, if you mix it perfectly, you get The Host, one of my favorite horror/comedies to ever come across my eyes.

It's not secret to most of my friends that I'm pretty in love with most of what Korean cinema offers me, with little exception. Park Chan-wook is one of my favorite directors and the cinematography of most of the Korean pictures I've seen, Kodak fascinations into horrifying circumstances, inspires much of how I try to make my movies and construct my shots (though, I'm barely even able to touch that quality). Let alone the fantastic and imaginative stories these movies tell, most of all present in the movie I'm about to review. I'm surprised I still haven't seen any South Korean music videos... wait, a minute, no!

Anyway, so my experience with this movie goes wayyy back to high school. In between my usual unsavory activities, I actually attended my high school. And one of my best friends and I, we'd introduce each other to different items of pop culture. At least, I'd attempt to, he'd rarely open up to anything. On the other hand, he introduced me to several things, like Wu-Tang Clan, Megadeth without Dave Mustaine's douchery and, my favorite guitarist, Buckethead (Hey, if you read this post, wanna score one of my movies? *grin*). After exposing him to Oldboy (Park, 2003), this old-school Godzilla fan expresses anticipation for the North American release of another South Korean picture called The Host. This was before Stephanie Meyer used that name for another of her novels, so I had no bad connotation with the name and I got interested but never  got around to seeing it in theaters.

After attempting to find a 'working' copy for four years, I move to 2010, when I find one in the library and figure 'meh, I'm game, yo.' What followed was a story that I could not stop watching until the end.

The movie follows the Park family, who seem to be barely making it through life by working a snack-bar near the Han River. Our protagonist, Gang-du (the immensely talented Song Kang-ho), helps his father Hee-bong (Byong Hee-bong - whose appearance really comes off to be as a Korean John Huston) deliver the beer and octopus legs to the groups of people who come by the river everyday. Of course, Gang-du is sort of dim and eats some of the food or just screws up orders. Worst, he's in charge of his daughter, Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seong), the mother being nowhere in sight. Hyun-seo tolerates her situation but doesn't hide his displeasure with it. It's the usual single father-estranged child plotline. Sprinkled with an alcoholic brother who doesn't care about anything anymore Nam-il (Park Hae-il).

The family's situation is not all that bad, though. They do have a sister who is a national archer, Nam-joo (and is portrayed by the beautiful Bae Doona, so I give that a plus). Except her last televised performance is sort of a letdown to her following. And the situation goes back to bad when a huge monster comes out from the Han River and devastates the place, eating everyone in sight and destroying the park...

Wait, let's back up. This series of events was put into play 6 years earlier when a US army doctor - played by Scott Wilson, whom I recognized from another favorite horror-comedy Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, old folks'll recognize from In Cold Blood and everybody else would recognize from the current television hit The Walking Dead - forces his assistant to dump a significant amount of formaldehyde into the Han River. Apparently that formaldehyde got on something and left a pretty bad situation for the people in the above clip.

Especially the Park family when Hyun-seo is kidnapped by the creature and every survivor from the Han River incident is quarantined by the government. The same government responsible for this fiasco. They're held this way until Gang-du receives a call from his daughter (who ironically earlier on complained about he cell's service), figures out she's alive and tries get the rest of the family to escape the center, battle the monster and attempt to save their daughter and the young friend she found in her captivity as well.

It's unique story of the kind where the Japanese people might find themselves on their own and have to deal with Mothra or Godzilla on their own, if only for the sake that they are the only compassionate ones in the picture. The Park family gets taken advantage of all throughout this conflict but they also show their wit and companionship to be a strength among them. The genre mixing (horror, comedy, drama, thriller, action) is not as obvious when watching it - it doesn't go onto parody. Instead, it layers it all into one so that the conventions blend together and allow for us to see satire and commentary on South Korea's handling of things and on how people in general react to exaggeration. 

Well, I mean, I'd hardly think the beast is exaggerated.
Part of the humor comes from the fact the monster is just as much a screw-up as the Park family is. Just look at his movements, he's slipping and sliding, rolling and tumbling all over the place. Can't even stand up straight. But he's still a killer and he's still got some bad intentions for the people of the town - among which a rumor goes around that the monster is a host of a deadly virus...

The colors of the movie, while present in the initial Han River park attack, are eventually washed away, leaving some really good shots for when the family is fighting the creature or the government, or the daughter is trying to find a new passage of escape, but also mainly focusing on the quieter moments between the family, when they put their differences and arguments aside if only to make sure they have one more member still alive to argue with. The real character of the movie is its bittersweetness, its eventual acceptance of circumstances which make their mission harder but still move them to push on. This mood especially comes to its peak in the end, but whatever's left of the characters (Oh yeah, it's not gory at all, but this is still a very violent movie) have grown up from their journey and have a new sense of pride. They're still a family after going through the grinder.

That's deep, bro!

Yeah, I like some pretty ammoral movies but I also really enjoy movies with heart. I enjoy movies that don't like making that heart too apparent even more. The Host happens to be the in the latter and so it really gets an appreciation from me. It's a monster movie, but it's still a family movie too. I'd probably have no trouble watching it with kids of my own (well, maybe it might scare them but at least there's no big blood or any nudity in it).  Yep. That's a movie, I tell ya. A warm intense monster chase through a South Korean park. That's a movie for my good sensibility.

I give this movie a 9.5 out of 10. It's not entirely accessible if you're unwilling to invest yourself into the 2-hour movie, but if you take the time to do so, hey, it's a huge pleasure.

I am extremely pleased now to find that so many of the South Korean directors I loved are now being accepted in Hollywood. Kim Ji-woon (director of A Tale of Two Sisters, The Good the Bad and the Weird and I Saw the Devil) has taken charge of Arnold Schwarzenegger's big come-back picture The Last Stand. The director of this movie and Memories of a Murder, Bong Joon-ho, is now taking a largely English-picture with Chris Evans and Jamie Bell about travelers in a world of snow. But my absolute favorite director of the South Korean modern movement, Park Chan-wook, of the Vengeance trilogy, JSA, Thirst, and I'm a Cyborg but That's OK, is directing an American thriller written by Prison Break-star Wentworth Miller about an uncle moving in with a family called Stoker which I'm looking forward to.

But before you see any of these, I really urge you to check out the early South Korean works to see just what these guys are made of. For the most part, they're all unique and enjoyable and wonderful, even if some (like I Saw the Devil and the Vengeance trilogy) will be a bit hard to stomach.

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