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Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Host

A nifty little monster movie with post-modernist touches that both add to and detract from its effectiveness, writer-director Bong Joon-ho’s The Host gets right to the good stuff. After a quick introduction to Gang-du, who works at his family’s food stand (sort of a mini 7-Eleven), and his spunky young daughter Hyun-seo, the movie shifts immediately to a strange sight nearby, drawing a crowd to the bank of Seoul’s Han River: something is hanging off a bridge right in the middle of its span. Suddenly, it drops into the water, swimming, and the excited crowd watches its approach. They start to throw food – and cans of beer – at the shape in the river. But when that shadow comes to the surface, the playful tone shifts, and the film quickly gets scary as hell: the shape is not the least bit friendly, and it immediately starts chasing, and eating, humans.

The Korean title translates as Creature, and indeed the creature is the single most accomplished thing in the movie: a co-creation of two special effects houses, The Orphanage (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Superman Returns) and Weta Workshop (The Lord of the Rings). This very frightening beast is part giant cockroach, part carnivorous tadpole, with the terrifying multiple fanged mouths of Alien’s alien, plus a really long tongue. Whenever It is on screen, or even threatening to appear, this is a splendidly effective scare picture.

But Bong Joon-ho has other things on his mind. The store-owning family members are a vivid group of eccentrics, and they become outlaws on the run after one of them is snatched by the creature and the authorities refuse to help them rescue her. The family escapes from the quarantine that has been imposed, and ventures out to find the monster’s lair. The American title, The Host, is ironic: the behavior of the police and the national health officials is handled with sometimes bitter satire, as they come to the conclusion that the creature has introduced a deadly new virus into the world. The authorities (and a mob of conformists following their orders) become co-villains in the story – but they act out of blind stupidity, while the creature itself is only doing what comes naturally.

In its mix of superb film craft with sophomoric jokes, slapstick, shocking violence and sometimes satirical social commentary, The Host reminds me of another recent movie from Korea, Park Chanwook’s Lady Vengeance. The disparate elements don’t always gel, and American genre fans expecting an ordinary sort of action picture are likely to be unhappy with some of the odd, and sad, plot twists – but after seeing either The Host or Lady Vengeance, you know you’re in the presence of a major talent. (Both of these movies played at the New York Film Festival, and roused crowds accustomed to rather more sedate fare. Bong’s earlier film Memories of Murder, available on DVD, is also a genre picture with downbeat twists, and it has some interesting similarities to, and differences from, the new film Zodiac.)

The photography and editing of The Host are top-notch. The Han River location is vividly evoked, and the chases that take place near – and beneath – the riverbank are breathtakingly well done. The Park family’s journey isn’t very long geographically, but it takes on the nature of a heroic quest, even though as heroes they have their ups and downs. Gang-du’s sister Nam-joo (played by Bae Doo-na) is a champion archer (well, a bronze medalist) whose Achilles heel is being a little too…slow to let the arrow fly – and this becomes a witty visual joke at various points in the movie. Their brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il) seems at first a worthless, belligerent young drunk, but he proves his worth as the adventure continues. Gang-du himself is a bit of a goofy, shiftless layabout, but as events give his life a grim purpose, actor Song Kang-ho skillfully transforms the character into a real hero of sorts. (Actors Park and Song were also in Memories of Murder.)

The plot is sometimes sketchy, unconvincing, even silly, as is the satirical way the army and health officials are portrayed. But the movie has enough energy to ride over these faults. When the family’s quest takes a tragic turn, however, it feels like a miscalculation – the tone has been mostly fast and smartass up to that point, and one may not know how to react to the jarring shift. This may be just what director Bong has in mind, however, being a bit of an absurdist, gleefully mixing the comic and the sad.

So you may or may not feel completely satisfied by the story itself. But if you’re a monster movie aficionado, this is a monster you won’t want to miss. And if you’re interested in the Asian movies that have been expanding and subverting genres, such as Lady Vengeance and Infernal Affairs (the Hong Kong film on which The Departed is based), Bong Joon-ho is a director to watch – and The Host is a good place to start.

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