Director: BOON Joon-ho
Starring: SONG Kang-ho, BYUN Hee-bong, PARK Hae-il, BAE Doo-na, KO A-sung
Cinematographer: KIM Hyung-ku
Editor: KIM Sun-min
Writers: BOON Joon-ho, HA Won-jun, BAEK Chul-hyun
Music: LEE Byung-woo
Producers: CHOI Yong-bae, Junyoung Jang, JOH Neung-yeon, Lewis Kim, KIM Woo-Taek, Jeong Tae-Sung
What makes a great monster film? I think there’s two main ingredients (beyond plain old simple competent film making). The first is the depiction of the monster itself, and here there are two schools of thought. One is to hide the monster from view, believing that what the audience doesn’t see, is actually more scary than anything that can be shown on the screen – the theatre of the mind at work. The other approach is to put the monster front and centre. Of course this only works if you’ve got some damn fine special effects and make-up artists working on the film. The Host takes this second approach, having the monster on the go from the very outset. The second crucial ingredient to a great monster film, is the story and the characters who inhabit it. I know, it sounds simple doesn’t it – but if you don’t give a fuck about the characters, are you going to care when the monster comes a calling and a chompin’ and a chewin’ – me thinks not.
The Host, a film from Korea, has a good central unit of characters, the PARK family, who appear to live and work from a small food-seller’s van, in a park beside the Han River in Seoul. First there’s the patriarc of the family, played by BYUN Hee-bong, known simply as Grandpa or Father, depending on the character speaking. As the head of the family, he tries to keep his three grown children in check, which is not that easy. His eldest son, PARK Gang-du (SONG Kang-ho) is a little bit simple. As the eldest child, before the food cart, in the hard times, he suffered from malnutrition – and it is surmised that it has effected his brain. Gang-du also has a thirteen year-old daughter named Hyun-seo, whose mother disappeared straight after giving birth. Gang-du struggles to bring her up, and the other family members help out. Gang-du’s younger brother, Nam-il (PARK Hae-il) is a highly educated college graduate, who cannot find a job, and has subsequently become something of a drunk. Finally there is their sister Nam-joo, who is a competitive archer.
So the PARK’s are a pretty dysfunctional family- in fact they make the Simpsons seem average.
The film starts with a Scientist – possibly American, judging by the accent – demanding that his junior assistant, Mr. Kim, pour down the sink, a stockpile of formaldehyde bottles. The reason disposing of the chemical, is that the bottles have been sitting around for so long, that they have acquired a coating of dust – and in a laboratory, dust is the enemy. Mr. Kim suggests that disposing of the formaldehyde is such a manner, is not only a breach of regulations, but is also downright irresponsible as the drain leads directly to the Han River. The lead scientist doesn’t care, and demands that his instructions be carried out to the letter. Mr. Kim reluctantly agrees to pour out the bottles, and there are a lot of bottles.
You recognise this old monster movie cliché don’t you? Sure you do. The weird thing here, is this opening scene is based on an actual incident that happened in Korea in 2000, known as the McFarland Case, where a morgue attendant on a U.S. military base dumped a whole load of toxic chemicals down a drain which lead to the Han River. Of course this is filmdom, not real life, and something in the river mutates, and one fine afternoon by the Han river, as people go about their leisure activities, a group of people notice some kind of ‘thing’ hanging from a bridge that crosses the river. This creature is hanging by its tail, and sort of looks like a grey salamander. Suddenly it slides down and drops into the water. The crowd who have been watching, move to the river’s edge to track its progress. Among them is Gang-du. As they peer into the water, all they can see is a dark shadow, which appears to be sitting stationery, just a few metres from the river’s edge.
Gang-du, who was in the midst of serving some cans of beer to a customer on the river’s edge, decides to lob one of the cans into the river, near the dark shadow of the creature. After the can lands, a giant spear-like tail darts out, encircles the cans and drags it back underwater, to what most people presume is its mouth. This playful antic delights the crowd no end, so all the onlookers decide to throw out more food and drink for the creature – of course, all their mobile phones are out recording footage and taking photos of the action. But it appears that the creature is bored, and the shadow moves away from the shore, much to the disappointment of the crowd.
Before the crowd has a chance to disperse, having jumped up somewhere out of sight, running along the pathway beside the river, is the creature. As it runs, it bites, tramples or swats everybody in its path. The crowd run away screaming ‘Gojira! Gojira!’ – No they don’t, but that paints a nice mental picture for you – it’s the same thing. Hundreds of people are scrambling for their lives, before being turning into a meal for the giant rampaging monster.
Into the monster’s path, Gang-du’s daughter, Hyen-seo walks, almost oblivious to the carnage that the beast has been causing. Gang-du runs past and grabs her hand attempting to drag her to safety. She looses her footing and falls. Gang-du reaches back and grabs her hand again and rushes forward. Only the thing is, it wasn’t Hyen-seo’s hand. It was another young girl’s hand. Hyen-seo has been left behind in the path of the creature. He has saved the wrong girl.
As the creature bares down, it veers off to the side and it looks like it is going to run straight past Hyen-seo, paying her no attention. But then, at the last second, the creature’s tail shoots out, and curls around and scoops her up. Before anyone can come to her aid, the creature runs to the river’s edge and dives into the water.
If Gang-du had a shallow grasp of reality before, well now that he has lost his daughter, he’s complete mess. In fact, the whole PARK family is traumatised by Hyen-seo’s death.
The area around the river goes into lockdown with the military and the police cordoning off the area. Then the boffins turn up wearing yellow contamination suits. It is discovered that if you come into contact with the creature, it transmits a virus to your skin. Earlier, during the beasts rampage, as Gang-du had attempted to fight off the creature, his face had been covered in a spray of blood. Naturally the boffins want him, and drag him off for examination and a battery of other invasive tests.
While locked away in hospital, Gang-du recieves a call on his mobile phone. It is Hyen-seo. She says ‘Dad, listen to me! I can’t get out!’ She is in a sewer somewhere in the city – then before she can share any more information, the battery on her phone cuts out. Now, Gang-du, the simpleton, has to come good and save his daughter. Of course he can’t do it alone, and with the aid of his family he breaks out of the hospital and quarantine and goes searching for his daughter.
Once Gang-du escapes, it is feared that an epidemic- from the creatures virus, transmitted by Gang-du and his family, will sweep the country, and then spread across the world. The United States Government chooses to intervene, and plans to douse the whole city, with an anti-viral dust know as ‘Agent Yellow’. It has been said that ‘Agent Yellow’ has severe side-effects, and protest marches occur through the city, but this does not deter the boffins from implementing their viral defence program.
The Host is possibly the best big dumb monster movie since the original Tremors. The film realises the cliches in its script and actually embraces them in a big warm group hug. Make no mistake, we have all seen the plot threads on display here, and variations on the action sequences. I am sure that many of you, from the simple plot synopsis I jotted out above, can guess where this story is going – and most of you would be right. Story originality, is not The Host’s strong point. But what The Host does well, is gleefully round up all these familiar plot devices, then add a dash of comedy, a pinch of drama, a teaspoon of white-knuckle suspense, and a goodly serving of mild horror – providing the recipe for a damn good time in front of the television.
But unlike the aforementioned Tremors, which was just good fun, The Host has a few interesting observations to make about ‘World Health’ such as the SARS outbreak and the Chicken Flu epidemic, also about Human Rights, and finally some social commentary about the current Korean/American relationship. But the film doesn’t whack you over the head with these issues, it simply allows them to simmer under the surface. If you wish to apply them to your appreciation of the film, well, that’s up to you. For me, that’s just gravy on top of an already hugely satisfying meal.
If there is a weakness in The Host, and this will not surprise many readers in this day and age, it is that the creature is CG monster. And while the effects are pretty good, it renders (pardon the pun) the monster a trifle cold. At least a man in a suit gives a performance, but even the best CGI is lifeless creation. In some way that works – in that there’s no real empathy for the creature what-so-ever. It is simply a killing machine. We don’t know why it kills, beyond the fact that it is a mutant and that’s what mutant fish do – kill people. The the coldness of the digital monster, adds to this aloofness. But by the same token, if you are going to put the monster front and centre, as this film does, then you want to understand what drives or motivates the creature – beyond the fact that this is a monster movie and monsters run around killing people. I only say this, because there is some intriguing questions to be asked about the creature. I haven’t outlined the plot to the nth degree in my ramblings above – I don’t like my reviews to have too much extrapolation and spoil the film – but there are quite a few scenes that make you ask why is it doing that? And they are never really explained – like there a scene where the creature vomits up all these skeleton pieces. Why? Apart from the yuck factor.
Maybe some secrets should remain secrets. Anyway, that’s only a small quibble. The Host, is a pretty entertaining film, and on the ‘Rox’ or ‘Sux’ barometer, I would resoundingly say that The Host ‘Rox!’