Monday, May 28, 2012

Cinema On The Park Review: Gwoemul [The Host] (Bong Joon-Ho, 2006)

I was excited to watch The Host, having been recommended it on several occasions. It is not only a hugely popular film in Korea, but has been well-received by international audiences. I had the chance to see it at Cinema on the Park last week, playing as part of their 'Birth of the Blockbuster' program.

The Host is a South Korean monster film directed by Bong Joon-ho, following the success of his 2003 crime drama, Memories of Murder. The Host, which became the highest grossing South Korean film of all time and was critically acclaimed - picking up Best Film at the Asian Film Awards – works not just as an original and terrifying creature film, but as a social and political commentary. It introduces an additional biological threat which exposes government incompetence, identifies implications of the American military presence in Korea, and allows political activism to become a part of the drama. It is also a compelling family drama too.

The cause of the mutation of the giant amphibious creature that will later terrorize Seoul is revealed in the film’s opening sequence; the order of an American military pathologist to a reluctant Korean assistant to violate protocol and dump 200 bottles of formaldehyde into the sewer system, which flows into the Han River. A period of time passes, and there are several sightings of a large creature beneath the surface.

We are introduced to the family who will become the primary protagonists for this tale. Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) runs a snack bar with his father, Hee-bong (Byeon Hee-bong), which is set up along the bank of the Han River. It is revealed he has a sister and brother; a skilled national medallist archer, Nam-joo (Bae Doona) and an alcoholic former-activist, Nam-il (Park Hae-il), as well as a young daughter, Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seong). Each of the characters surprise us in different ways and it is easy to forge an emotional connection to their stories.

When civilians spot the large creature beneath a bridge along the Han River, Park joins the curious crowd who try to bait it. Soon enough, he and his family find themselves in danger when it emerges from the water and runs amok. As an audience, the arrival of the creature is just as much of a shock as it is to the bemused witnesses. People are mauled and killed and in a stunning capture, Hyuk-seo is grabbed by its tentacle and taken back to its lair. 

During the struggle, Park comes into contact with the creature, which is feared to be the host of a deadly virus, and as a result is considered to be an extreme threat to national health. Park has reason to believe his daughter is still alive and he enlists his family to help him escape from the facility and hunt down the creature, placing themselves on the Government wanted list in the process.

For most of the film the visual effects were exceptional and the CGI design of the monster is most interesting, save for the finale where I thought the effects became a little ambitious and weren’t quite pulled off. The beginning – conveying the reasons for the mutation of the monster – was also a bit weak. As original as the primary characters are in The Host I felt like Nam-joo was shortchanged, spending a large part of the film trapped in one of the drains.

That’s about the only obvious weaknesses, because The Host was a lot of fun, with Joon-ho breaking genre conventions and keeping the audience guessing. Though very amusing, mounting tension and genuine stakes are never surrendered for comedy, and there is great energy provided by the score, the innovative photography and the terrific performances. Song Kang-ho was excellent as the seemingly-boneheaded Park, who is revealed to be much smarter than initially suggested, scarred by events in his past and with an unshakeable dedication to finding his daughter. It is very cleverly crafted, effectively developing a supportable band of disparate heroes, and finding ways for them to participate and utilize their unique individual skills.

It is one of the few films that I have seen that has remained compelling for the duration having revealed the creature so early. Some of the best monsters films – Jaws and Alien for example – don’t reveal the monster until after the half way, while there are many that offer brief early glimpses and are obviously trying too hard to keep their monster hidden. Here, blessed with the budget to utilize the monster at his will, Joon-ho has enlisted a stellar creative team to come up with a very unique creature – and one that was utilized in original and inventive ways. Certainly one of my favourite Korean films to date. 

My Rating: ★★★★ (B+)

1 comment:

  1. Nice review! I watch a lot of Korean films but still go back to this occasionally and my DVD copy has been forced on various family and friends as a way of introducing them to Korean cinema. I thought that Song Kang-ho was excellent and that the effects and themes were also sucsessful.