Gwoemul (The Host) Review
Director Joon-ho Bong made one of the most compelling films of the last few years in 2004’s Salinui chueok aka Memories of Murder, a true-crime feature that was as much a study of socio-cultural division within 1980s South Korea as it was a satire of policiers. With the current state of Korean cinema, I don’t think any chungmuro followers were expecting Park Chan-wook to announce a cyborg girl flick (the upcoming Saibogujiman kwenchana aka I’m A Cyborg, But That’s Ok), or Bong Joon-ho a monster movie. The sheer verve with which Bong upends genre expectations while staying true to conventions would not be enough for the film to have garnered the widespread praise it has so far this summer, however – it is the anger, bitterness and humour with which he tackles socio-cultural concerns once more that make the film such a treat.
Jars of a noxious substance believed to be aging formaldehyde are dumped down the sink by a South Korean military morgue attendant under orders from his U.S. Army superior (veteran actor Scott Nelson, seen only a screening before in Behind The Mask). As the years go by, fishermen in the Han River start catching mutant baby fish, which they return to the water. In the current era, a dysfunctional modern family living and working a food stand on the banks of the Han are witness to the appearance of a now-fully-grown mutant river creature that moves ungainly but with killer speed onto land and rampages amongst the civilian population. With government forces disinterested in anything but their own spin on matters, and a U.S. presence intent on keeping its own interests safe, the family must break all the rules and come to terms with each other in order to rescue the youngest member, a schoolgirl taken in the initial attack who phones them to tell them she is still alive.
A film that exploits the full potential of its chosen genre, Boong’s slick, brutal, bitter satire of modern Korea has as much in common with the works of George A. Romero, Larry Cohen, and even Wright & Pegg’s wonderful Shaun Of The Dead, as it does with the great kaiju masterpieces of yesteryear, in particular the original Gojira aka Godzilla. Much as Memories was more interested in the cops, the community around them and their failure to serve the latter when needed most, Host is rife with bureaucratic, institutional and corporate callousness, and with people who have accepted the demands made of them by government, military and corporation in place of their own traditions and morality. Nothing and no-one is let off the hook; even the public displays of grief witnessed so often through the media in the wake of modern tragedies are here satirised. Everyone is driven by material forces of some kind, and these are as much at the heart of what has torn apart the lead family when the film begins. Song Kang-ho, already one of my favourite actors following his stunning turn in J.S.A., here cements his reputation as one of the finest actors in the world, playing a mentally challenged father trying his level best to be more than just a hapless big brother to his daughter. The honesty of his feelings and simplicity of what basic wisdom he has gathered in life are not allowed to overwhelm the fact of his mental deficiency, which costs another character his life. Bong regular Hie-bong Byeon (Crying Fist, Another Public Enemy, Memories of Murder) plays the family patriarch with as much exasperation as affection for the younger members, but whereas his heartfelt pleas to tradition and feeling would be emotional set-pieces in other films, here they are an excuse for him and his views to be ridiculed. Hae-il Park (Rules of Dating, Memories of Murder) and Du-na Bae (Tube, Sympathy for Mr.Vengeance) represent Bong’s thoughts on the relative success of education and sports as avenues for advancement in modern society, with both characters being made fun of as well as being shown to have issues which, in true disaster movie fashion, they must resolve before they can all unite as a family to counteract the monster.
However, it is young Ah-sung Ko who grabs our sympathies and takes our breath away with her reactions to and around the monster itself. A CG tour-de-force from US fx house The Orphanage (POTC: DMC, Superman Returns, Aeon Flux, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), with the emphasis on believability rather than toy sales, the creature is sold to us by Ko’s acting, giving the monster the necessary reactions of terror and fear that makes us fear for her life as she plays dangerous games with the creature in its hide-out in an attempt to escape and reach her family. Ironically, it is as much her recognition of her family’s incompetence that drives her to escape rather than wait for them, as it is her understanding of the danger she’s in. She is the heart of the picture, without a doubt – remove her or replace her with a child actress of lesser ability, and the entire project would flounder emotionally.
In the end, though, it is the director’s picture, and he takes the unexpected step of making the picture bitterly, ironically funny. Neither I nor the rest of the FrightFest audience expected to laugh as much as we did, especially on the heels of the excellently witty Behind The Mask, and it is this which grants Bong’s suspense sequences an additional edge, played as straight as they are. I am looking forward to seeing this film again as much as Pan’s Labyrinth – both intelligent, adult entertainments that transcend genre in their use of tropes and imaginative fx work, they bookended Frightfest 2006 nicely, and deserve extensive coverage and financial success in the U.K.
The Host is currently scheduled for release in UK Cinemas on 10th November 2006.