The Reeler


March 9, 2007

The Host

Korean deconstruction of the blockbuster offers powerful incitement, guiltless good fun

When a talented emerging filmmaker directs an inarguably great work, those keeping track of such things tend to make comparisons to antecedents. So it comes as no great surprise that, in the months following the North American premiere of The Host at the New York Film Festival, critics compared Korean director Bong Joon-ho to a Jaws-era Steven Spielberg. On the surface, all the signs are there: An unspeakably horrible monster emerges from the sea and terrorizes an entire city; bureaucratic red tape hinders the establishment's operation to save lives; only a brave few souls gather the wits to launch a grassroots campaign and face off against the deadly beast. But where Spielberg invented the language of the modern blockbuster, The Host brilliantly deconstructs it.

If the movie must get stuffed into a preexisting American paradigm, its basic contraptions are best described as Mimic meets Ghostbusters, blending the latter's action-comedy playfulness with the grotesqueries of the former. Unlike the gradual pacing and hidden dread so critical to Jaws, however, Joon-ho doesn't waste time keeping his carnivorous animal in the shadows. In the opening minutes, chemical waste from an American military outpost spills into the Han River, creating a maritime Frankenstein's monster whose nightmarish appearance looks like a frightful spin on the festive dragons of Chinese parades. Bounding onto the city's shore, the creature immediately begins its killing spree, and the civilians do their part, fleeing in a fit of shouts and expressive reaction shots. The story moves immediately into a focus on personal conflict within disaster when the creature steals off to its underground compound, kidnapping a young girl named Hyun-Seo (Ko Ah-Sung), whose aimless father Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) accidentally leaves her side. Grandpa (Byun Hee-bong) is expectedly pissed.

From there, The Host launches into the ambitious realm of metaphor, mocking the disorder and panic that typically follows urban catastrophes. Direct references are made to the mayhem of the SARS outbreak, akin to notions of biological weapons in the original Godzilla: authorities round up those unfortunate enough to have come in contact with the creature, quarantining them and diagnosing a non-existent disease. Gang-du and the rest of his family -- which also includes Gang-du's celebrity archer sister (Bae Doo-na) and anti-authoritarian brother (Park Hae-il) -- bust through the red tape and launch an ambitious rescue mission for their missing relative. Meanwhile, Hyun-Seo tries to fend for herself by hiding in the muck of the Korean sewer system. Treated as fugitives (and disease-carriers), the family faces nearly as much danger from law enforcement as they do from the creature itself.

Hurtling forward with breathless momentum, The Host is a monster movie that posits its thrilling, action-heavy plot at face value, while consistently editorializing about the pratfalls of current emergency protocol. A single major development halfway through provides a devastating rebuke against government secrecy. While the American distributors of Godzilla felt the need to add Raymond Burr in order to give the movie its obligatory Western touchstone, Bong takes care of that on his own, introducing a simultaneously creepy and hilarious United States agent responsible for propagating lies to keep the anxious public at bay. Imagine an alternate take on Independence Day that positions the president as a bad guy, and you'll get a good idea of the unremitting cynicism that gives The Host its edge.

Fortunately, the generous helpings of satire scattered throughout The Host don't trump its allegiance to science fiction and action movie tropes -- Bong plays against expectations while at the same time embracing Hollywood aesthetics. To that end, The Host creates one hell of a convincing beast. When Roland Emmerich remade Godzilla in 1998, Roger Ebert pointed out that the monster showed up mostly at night, allowing the filmmakers to shield the seams in their special effects. The fearsome hunter of The Host appears almost exclusively during the day, and it looks fantastic.

While The Host has already broken box office records in Korea, it might have a tough time branching out to massive crowds in the United States for one sad reason: foreign language. But if the movie doesn't reach large audiences outside major American cities, loads of theatergoers are missing out. Bong demonstrates a keen understanding of everything that makes multiplex fodder worth watching, but subversively combines his awareness of genre mechanisms with a powerful indictment of modern society -- and never punishes you for having a good time watching.

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