The Host Review
In 1979, John Frankenheimer directed a film called Prophecy which dealt with the terrible social and environmental impact of industrial waste on a small North American community. It was an honourable attempt which failed for two major reasons; some rather ludicrous special effects; and an unbearable excess of preachy self-importance. Three decades on, The Host takes the same basic premise and runs with it, turning it into an original, exciting, funny and bitingly satiric movie which isn't remotely shy of crossing genre boundaries. It's a monster movie, a virus movie, an embittered study of unfeeling bureacracy and a comedy about family in the quirky vein of Little Miss Sunshine.
For a full feview of the film, I refer readers to Hugh K. David's piece on the theatrical release which can be found here. I pretty much agree with everything he says but would emphasise a few points. Joon-ho Bong's direction is quite extraordinarily invigorating, even more so than one would have anticipated from his superb Memories of Murder. The pace he creates would put most Hollywood action films to shame, leading to a feeling of almost unbearable excitement during the second half. This instinctive filmmaking skill leads to the effectiveness of the horror set-pieces which are sparing but brilliantly executed. The highlight is the first sighting of the monster and subsequent attack on the waterfront which is my favourite monster movie moment since the blood-testing scene in The Thing. The unusual decision to reveal the monster very early pays dividends in making us believe in the sheer terror of the beast. But the film, brilliantly made as it is, wouldn't work without the set of superb performances, particularly from the touching and funny Song Kang-ho - I adore the beautiful moment when he cries "Nobody listens to my words" - and the marvellously believable Ah-sung Ko, one of the most credible movie teenagers for some time. Some may find the mixture of comedy and horror a little unsatisfying and it's certainly true that the darker comic scenes will divide audiences down the middle.
But then it is a dark and rather angry film with a potent anti-corporate and, more controversially, anti-US agenda. It's partly inspired by a genuine incident which occurred in 2000 where the US military dumped formaldehyde into the sea and the use of "Agent Yellow" is quite clearly a reference to the infamous "Agent Orange" which was used to such devastating effect in South-East Asia. There's also criticism of the impotent, callous South-Korean government, one which, it is implied, is dangerously in thrall to American values. The incredibly bleak ending has a clear-eyed cynicism which demonstrates how serious Joon-ho Bong is. But one could also see this as in a direct line of descent from numerous American monster movies which have a decidedly anti-government bias, none more so, of course, than Jaws.
There has been much hype around the film, something which helped it get a much wider cinema release in the UK than I expected. It's also true that Korean cinema fans are a very vocal group who show a justifiable pride whenever something comes out which beats Hollywood at its own game. Whether or not it lives up to the hype depends on what you expect. If you want a balls-out Aliens style monster flick then you may well be disappointed, although it has to be said that the level of excitement remains unusually high throughout. Joon-ho Bong is great at tension but he's also interested in character and social context, refusing to sacrifice either for a cheap scare. But if you're looking for a quirky and blisteringly intelligent film which has the best of a number of genres without sacrificing its own identity, then The Host is a film which offers myriad rewards.
Optimum's release of The Host is a two-disc set which doesn't quite live up to expectations in terms of the transfer, despite a stunning collection of extra features.
The anamorphic 1.78:1 picture is something of a mixed bag. The high-contrast visuals don't make for an easy film to transfer but there should surely be considerably less aliasing than we get here. The over-enhancement in some sequences is extremely unsightly. Otherwise, the colours are excellent throughout and there is certainly a great deal of detail to take in. The Korean Dolby Digital 5.1 track is much more consistent with a wealth of surround moments which draw you right into the atmosphere of this very tense film. Ambient effects are constantly present in the underground scenes and speech is usually directional. There is also a competent but comparitively uninspired 2.0 track on the disc.
The only extra on the first disc is the rather over-explicit theatrical trailer. The second disc contains the majority of the bonus features and there are certainly plenty of them; the total running time comes in at around two hours. All the featurettes are in Korean for the most part and all have English subtitles.
The bonus materials are placed in a number of different categories. The Creature looks at how the monster was created, including a stills gallery and fifty minutes worth of featurettes - not surprising when you consider the ingenuity of the creation on such a relatively small budget. There are lots of production sketches and lengthy examinations of the character animation and animatronixs. From outside Korea, there was involvement from both Weta in New Zealand and The Workshop in San Francisco. The Making of the Host contains much interview material with the director and his cast and crew along with storyboards and information on the memorable sound effects. Although some of the soundbites are a bit EPK-ish in feel, the vast swathes of footage from production are fascinating, revealing how uncomfortable much of the shoot was, particularly for the younger members of the cast. The Crew looks in more depth at the crew, and I particularly enjoyed the piece with effects artist Kevin Rafferty and the ways in which he had to get used to Korean life. The Characters goes into more detail on the casting and the actors themselves, although this is the skimpiest section in terms of running time. There's an interesting bit here about the training of the actors in archery and gunplay.
We also get 23 minutes of deleted scenes, most of which simply expand on elements already present. None of them are essential, although I do like the wedding picture vignette. Finally "Saying Goodbye To The Host" considers the massively successful release of the film. There is also a Korean trailer present along with trailers for Optimum Asia titles Memories of Murder, Pulse and Shaolin Soccer.
Both the film and all the featurettes contain English subtitles though hard-of-hearing viewers may want to note that English dialogue in the film is not subtitled.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Host both as a satire and as a witty return to the wonderful world of The Creature From the Black Lagoon and Jaws. Thoroughly recommended, although the transfer on this Optimum disc is a disappointment.