Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writers: Bong Joon-ho & Baek Chul-hyun
Composer: Lee Byung-woo
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Byun Hee-bong, Park Hae-il, Bae Doo-na, Go Ah-sung.
There is something so interesting about Korean horror films. In western cinema we are used to horror that is mono-tonal – whether it is meant to be tongue in cheek, sadistic torture porn, unrelentingly terrifying, or slasher fun. We are used to knowing the type of movie we are watching and expecting it to deliver on that promise. Korean movies not so much. You can have highly farcical moments played up to ridiculous heights, followed by severely emotional moments full of pathos, segued by carnage and thrilling moments of unadulterated action. It’s enough to give the most seasoned movie-goer emotional whiplash. The Host is that type of movie.
I first discovered South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho when I watched Mother six or seven years ago. The movie had just come out when I moved to South Korea, but because I couldn’t speak the language (and obviously there wouldn’t be any subtitles in the movie theater) I didn’t go see it. I had to wait until I had moved back to the States to watch it and it became the first Korean film I had ever seen (ironic that in spite of living over a year in the country I was never able to see a single film due to the linguistic divide). I immediately fell in love with it – the film was mesmerizing. Then four years ago Snowpiercer came out, the director’s first English language film, and I dragged a friend to the movie theater to go see it. Once again I was blown away. Said friend doesn’t like dystopian and post-apocalyptic movies, so she didn’t like it. My best friend hated it, for reasons still unclear to me. But I loved it. Truly, absolutely loved it. I was now a fan of the director. And yet I didn’t go back to see the movie that, at the time at least, became the highest grossing Korean film of all time. Well, last weekend my fiancé and I decided to watch it. He didn’t love it all that much, but I quite enjoyed it, even if imperfect.
The Host is a low-key shady film criticizing the United States. The movie opens in a Seoul morgue, with an American mortician instructing a reluctant employee to dump toxic formaldehyde into the sink, which we are told ends up in the Han river (the major river that runs through the Korean capital). This vignette is supposed to indicate that the monster that will appear later in the film is a direct result of these actions – because a selfish American refused to dispose of chemicals in the correct way. I found it kinda funny, especially because as much as Korea and the US are allies, the Korean people have a love-hate relationship with the American superpower and don’t always trust the alliance (for example when I lived there, Koreans refused to buy or import American beef, believing it to be tainted and dangerous… which maybe isn’t completely unfounded…).
The protagonists of the movie are the Park family, a patriarch who owns a bodega next to the river (Byun Hee-bong), his college-educated but unemployed drunk son (Park Hae-il), a daughter who is a national archery superstar (Bae Doo-na, Sense8), a simple minded and lazy son and the movie’s real protagonist Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), and the latter’s daughter Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung). On a normal day like any other Gang-du is serving some costumers roasted squid and beer when suddenly everyone in the park begins to look towards the river: hanging from the bridge is a mysterious, swaying entity nobody can exactly identify. Suddenly it drops into the water, and when it reaches the riverbed it begins to attack. Mayhem ensues. The monster kills many, injures many more, and in the chaos, grabs young Hyun-seo and whisks her away from her inept and distraught father. Believed to be dead, what follows is a surprisingly hilarious scene in which the remaining adult family members mourn the young girl’s loss by writhing on the floor, loudly mourning, half fighting, shouting the little girl’s name over and over again – it is played extremely comedically and it offers a funny respite after the high-octane sequence that immediately preceded it. Believing the monster to be carrying a dangerous pathogen, the Korean government decides to quarantine anyone who had come into contact with it, so the entire family is whisked to a hospital, where Gang-du receives a phone call from Hyun-seo alerting him that she is still alive. The rest of the movie focuses on the family’s efforts to escape, save her, not get caught, and the intervention of the United States after it decides that it is unhappy with the way that the Korean government is handling the crisis. For a horror-monster movie, it sure is ambitious.
I am impressed with Bong’s directing that even though the monster is never fully realistic, the story he weaves allows us to suspend disbelief and trust in the menace appearing on screen, that in and of itself is a difficult task. The effects in the movie are not the best, but the relationships in the film, specifically amongst the Park family, read as true, even when they are at their most heightened. The film is entertaining and doesn’t let up or bore throughout its 2 hour run time, and ultimately isn’t that what we want from a horror film with a monster at its center? People who understand or know Korean culture will likely have a richer experience watching than those who don’t, but the story is understandable to any viewer trying to watch something fun on Netflix. The ending will perplex some and upset others, but it’s in tune with the director’s work and Korean cinema as a whole. I was entertained and overall had a good time watching it, and would recommend it to genre fans wholeheartedly.