March 9, 2007

Host Mortem

Exploring the dark side of the monster blockbuster with director Bong Joon-ho

By John Lichman

Whose monster is it anyway? Another Creature casualty from Bong Joon-ho's The Host

Monster movies aren’t necessarily supposed to be popcorn fun, even though that’s the current trend. Gojira, for example (not the 1956 Raymond Burr re-edit Godzilla: King of the Monsters!), is a strict discussion of atomic power in post-nuclear Japan. It shows the oncoming apocalypse with a rampaging monster that didn’t speak to little boys or battle kung-fu aliens, as he does in later installments; the original film comprises stark, black-and-white images ending with the monster killed by an “oxygen destroyer” -- which also wipes out all forms of life in Tokyo Bay. Creator Tanaka Tomoyuki came up with his beast during a plane ride over the Atlantic Ocean, gazing out the window, wondering just what was beneath the water.

If great minds indeed think alike, then it’s no surprise that Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho conjured a similar idea for his creature in his blockbuster The Host (opening today in New York). His was just a bit more local.

“That was my very first beginning point when I was in high school,” said Bong, accompanied by a translator, during a recent interview with The Reeler. Living close to the Han River in Seoul, South Korea, he thought about what would happen if something did emerge -- but he originally compared the idea to seeing a creature like the Loch Ness Monster, whose fuzzy shape is synonymous with skeptics and monster fans alike. Luckily, this worked as more as a branching point; after all, even Werner Herzog proved that films about Loch Ness are a bit boring. Natural creatures aren’t nearly as terrifying as the by-products of a lazy government.

“I also felt that whether it be America or Korea, social-political commentary is in tune with the monster sci-fi drama,” Bong told me. Indeed, his Creature itself is a reference to an event in 2000 during which Albert McFarland, a mortician working for the US Army at a base in Yongsan, in the middle of Seoul, ordered 192 canisters of formaldehyde dumped down the drain of a sink in his mortuary. It should be no surprise that this flashback works as a prologue to The Host, nor that the American would unintentionally father such a creation, like the original Godzilla. Even Bong's countrymen and indirectly indicted for doing nothing, as years later, two men fishing in the Han happen upon a tinier version of the Creature, thinking little of it when it swims away.

From there we meet Park Gang-Du (Song Kang-Ho), a slacker who works at a snack stand with his father near the Han. He’s also an irresponsible single dad whose young daughter Hyun-seo scoffs at her father absent-mindedly giving her a beer. Only minutes after meeting these basic characters, we’re introduced to Bong’s Creature -- not concealed in shadows for an hour, but openly wreaking bloody havoc during a crowded day on the riverbank. After the dramatic rampage, the Creature leaps back into the river, Hyun-seo caught in his tail. From here, the Park family, featuring previous Bong collaborators Park Hae-il (Memories of Murder) and Bae Doo-na (Barking Dogs Never Bite), is forced to band together when no one in either the American or Korean bureaucracies descended on the scene believe its claim that the girl is still alive. “Why is it no one is helping this family,” Bong asked. “Why are they fighting against the country, the society, the system? It’s just this weak, weak family.”

Director Bong Joon-ho

Instead, each family member’s talent is exposed only at the end -- after being battered (and killed, in one instance) by the Creature and chased down and brutalized by the Korean people. There is no moral purpose of defeating the evil; it just comes across as brutal revenge, haunting the minds of the people forevermore as Gang-du still lives by the Han at the end of the film, a rifle by his side, the truly terrifying aspect being that the Creature is not alone.

And as the monster movie tradition also involves the heroic scientist and spunky sidekicks who find a way to defeat the creature, later staring off into the sunset, no such archetypes appear here. Scientists, mostly typified through the biohazard-suited American officials in the film, are as clueless in handling the Creature as they are at identifying what it is. A potential virus is detected, but no one can confirm the Creature is responsible or that it even exists. Nevertheless, dissatisfied with the Korean government's "failure" to subdue the monster, the Americans introduce Agent Yellow, a chemical weapon designed to destroy all life in the Han River; Bong mentioned that it’s no coincidence that the agent's container, suspended in mid-air, resembles the coiled-up shape of the Creature in its first glimpse onscreen. Of course, the tactic bears parallels to Gojira’s own demise, but Bong changes the atmosphere when the Creature emerges on land; the scene, he says, is critical of a government response as devastating to its people as it is to its intended target. Or perhaps more so -- the dark irony of the situation reveals woozy civilians caught in the poisonous yellow cloud as the Creature walks it off.

The film's original Korean title, Gwoemul, does translate as The Monster or The Creature, both of which Bong said he felt were too mundane for an American audience; if such general titles were commonplace in American cinema, he said, then to merely refer to the film as The Monster would suggest to viewers that archetypal popcorn monster movie in washed out coloring, maybe trying to be funny. But a "host" is the opposite of a parasite, Bong reminded me, and while The Host could symbolize anything, it yields two meanings for the filmmaker. "In essence, this family is fighting against two monsters," he said. "The actual Host and everything fighting against them."

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