(Dir. Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2006)
The monster movie has been a staple of cinema since King Kong in the ‘30s and Gojira in the ‘50s. With several remakes of those two plus countless more, the horror sub-genre is typically not one to be taken all that seriously. Monsters devour expendable characters and lay waste to famous cities (poor New York usually gets the brunt of this filmic desire to destroy), and moviegoers munch on their popcorn, sip their overpriced drinks, and go home. These films are for studios to test out rookie directors, make a dent in the summer box office, and give audiences a good thrill or two if they’re lucky. In short, we’re not talking anything special here. Apparently, somebody forgot to tell Bong Joon-ho.
Fresh off the success of Memories of Murder, Bong thought he’d try his hand at concocting a monster movie of his own. Released in 2006, The Host opened to widespread acclaim and audience adoration. It set a box office record in its home country of South Korea, and took the international film community by storm. When it hit the shores of the U.S., it quickly became the foreign language film to see that season. So, what struck a chord with audiences and critics alike? What could a movie about a mutated fish wreaking havoc on the banks of the Han River have to offer a grossly overstuffed genre?
In The Host’s opening sequence, Bong already sets his film apart. Rather than predictably teasing his audience with a horrific context-free attack to build anticipation (a tactic enshrined in the Spielbergian model of suspense – see Jaws and Jurassic Park), Bong begins his film with some tasteful exposition. The opening wide shot features an American military pathologist and his Korean assistant in a drab, dimly lit laboratory. The year is 2000, and this ranking American official shows his true colors when he demands that his assistant dump innumerable bottles of old formaldehyde down the drain despite the ethical protests of the Korean national. In this brief scene, we’re immediately clued in to the origins of the impending monstrosity and who’s responsible for it.
After a couple of more scene-setting shots of presumed monster sightings (and perhaps Bong’s subtle insistence that his fellow countrymen are partially to blame for what transpires), he parks his narrative in the present day and introduces the family at the film’s center. The slow-witted Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) is a middle-aged man who still helps out with his father’s riverside snack bar. His sister Nam-joo (Bae Doona) is a national medalist archer and his brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il) is a jaded, unemployed college grad whose patience with his brother wears quickly thin. Their father Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong), at times quick to defend Gang-du against the others, tries to keep these three close, but it’s Gang-du’s preteen daughter Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung) who ties this family together. Each loves her in turn and presumably dotes on the girl as the only child in the family.
Predictably (but no less thrillingly), their world is turned upside down when the grotesque, aquatic creature takes Hyun-seo hostage after unleashing his pent up fury for the first time near the river. Much has been made of the monster’s introduction, and for good reason. Bong proves his story wholly engaging as he continually upends expectations. The creature is given no dramatic reveal; rather, bystanders spot a cocoon-looking mass hanging from the underside of a bridge crossing the Han. It sways in the breeze as more onlookers gather and then dives head first into the water. As it swims nearer the bank, people begin throwing trash in the water to see what it will eat. Again, no pants-wetting leap from the water occurs. Instead, shrieks from further down the riverside make heads turn. The monster, now fully in view, gallops toward the group – including Gang-du – and begins its onslaught of its unsuspected victims. It’s an expertly staged sequence of terror. Bong never lets his camera linger on the beast too long; its graphics not on par with big budget Hollywood flicks. But, in this judiciousness, the creature becomes all the more real.
The rest of the film follows the Park family as they first join others in mourning for loved ones, then find themselves inexplicably quarantined for potential contact with what the U.S. military deems a host of a deadly virus, then learn that Hyun-seo is not dead after receiving a call from her phone. The four manage to escape the strict confines of their quarantine and embark on a risky rescue mission. Bong injects a positively likable quality to this awkward and at times fumbling foursome. Nam-il easily flies off the handle, Gang-du unceremoniously falls asleep whenever and wherever, Nam-joo scuttles along in no hurried fashion as the group tries to stage their getaway in a moving van, and the patriarch readily keeps the other three on task. There are moments of unexpected humor throughout that keep The Host from begging to be taken too seriously (better luck next time, Peter Jackson).
Bong spends most of his time with this family and Hyun-seo down in the sewer, but he also captures a bit of the public climate in the wake of a potential disaster such as this. After a series of nameless doctors and nurses run endless tests on Gang-du, it’s revealed that there may actually be no virus. No patients show any symptoms, but the quarantine procedures do not end regardless. When the government announces its plan to release a deadly chemical called Agent Yellow (perhaps Bong’s biggest wink) to try to eliminate the underwater threat, the city erupts into chaos. Protests fill the streets, dubious news stories flash across TV screens, and citizens begin donning surgical masks almost overnight. In this regard, Bong’s film is an indictment of the government’s role in generating and perpetuating widespread panic. One can’t help but draw comparisons to the international handling and media coverage of this decade’s epidemics mad cow, West Nile, bird flu, SARS, and swine flu.
Furthermore, The Host plays as an intelligent critique of American intervention, inefficient Korean bureaucracy, and careless treatment of the environment. Thankfully, Bong’s metaphors are never heavy-handed or preachy, but they’re also impossible to miss. That Bong manages all this while crafting a wildly entertaining and surprisingly heartfelt take on the monster movie lends credence to his heralded skills of filmmaking.