A few nights ago I watched the Korean monster movie, The Host. Written and directed by Bong Joon-ho (what a fantastic name), it’s very possibly the finest film of the genre*. Actually, now that I think about it, Jaws may well stake a firmer claim for that title… but being the second-best monster movie to Jaws is hardly a disgrace.
And the Jaws comparison is an apt one. Like Spielberg’s classic, The Host is actually about how a small group of people deal with this catastrophic presence that enters their lives (in this case a broken family… two adult brothers and sister, their father, and the young daughter of one of the brothers), as opposed to being about the catastrophic presence itself. The acting is quite amazing and as the tragedy unfolds, engulfing this fragile family, I found myself being genuinely moved by their plight. I’m not sure even Jaws drew that level of emotional involvement from me.
One major difference, however, between the two is the lack of a “Big Reveal”. There’s no “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” scene halfway through the film. Instead we see the monster in its entirety bounding along the riverbank, gobbling up fleeing people, within the first five minutes. I was surprised by this, as I was with a lot of the film. Certainly the manner of the monster’s death is telegraphed early. Even before we see the thing, in fact, within the first few minutes of the film, the perceptive viewer will be left in no doubt as to a crucial factor in the beast’s eventual demise.
But aside from this, there’s little about The Host that most viewers will find predictable. Central characters who are guaranteed to survive the inevitable Hollywood remake, find themselves casually killed off with very little warning. And to say that the ultimate outcome would not feature in a big-budget American movie is an understatement. Nonetheless, the low-key, tragic ending fits perfectly on a film that is far, far more thoughtful than any monster movie has a right to be.
The dialogue is mostly in Korean, though the occasional American character makes an appearance and is presumably subtitled in Korean for the home audience. In fact, there’s a surprisingly strong anti-American theme throughout the film. The film opens with an American scientist ordering his Korean assistant to dump toxic chemicals into Seoul’s Han River (with obvious results). Later on we see a news report stating that the United States has lost confidence in Korea’s ability to contain the crisis and is planning to dump “Agent Yellow”, a powerful chemical, onto Seoul. As we follow the family’s attempt to track down their missing grand-daughter (snatched by the monster at the beginning of the film), it’s against the backdrop of a city bordering on open revolt against the authorities.
It’s worth pointing out that there is indeed one heroic American character. But even his sacrifice is cynically manipulated by the authorities in order to further their own inexplicable agenda.
In fact, it is this perspective that makes The Host such compelling viewing. For once, we aren’t seeing the monster hunt through the eyes of the military, or some heroic monster-expert. Instead we get a citizen’s view of the complete mess being made of the situation by the authorities, while an ordinary family attempt to overcome not merely the nightmarish creature from the river, but also the utter incompetence of those in power.
One scene in particular springs to mind; Gang-Du, the central character, has been placed in quarantine having been splattered with the monster’s blood. He desperately tries to convince the police that his daughter is still alive. But he’s not a very sharp guy and has difficulty expressing himself clearly. Throughout the scene, he is separated from those he’s trying to convince by a thick sheet of semi-transparent plastic. Later, as he pleads with one of the scientists, he again finds himself separated (this time by the contamination suits worn by the officials), and shouts in frustration; “Why won’t anyone listen to me? My words are words too!” Rarely have I seen social alienation portrayed so well. And this is in a monster movie!
Watching the film, I was reminded more than once of the Japanese auteur, Takeshi Kitano. And that’s not a lazy “well both directors are from somewhere over there” comparison. Kitano is my favourite film director, bar none, and there are scenes in The Host (such as the one where Gang-Du and his father are running alongside one another by the river, Nam-il’s encounter with the homeless guy, and the wonderful final battle) which I found very reminiscent of Kitano’s work.
That’s not to suggest that The Host is a work of towering genius like Dolls or Hana-bi, merely that it transcends a rather one-dimensional genre and succeeds in being a genuinely excellent movie. Overall, this is a film I’d recommend very highly indeed. On the most basic level, it’s a damn fine monster flick. But there’s far more to it than that. Check it out.
UPDATE 22:45 I’ve just noticed that the review-quote on the English version of the film poster is “On a par with Jaws”. Pretty good call.