At The Picture Show
Blaming America has never looked so good
'The Host' is a masterfully, hilariously realized monster movie-cum-political fable
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Screenplay: Chul-hyun Baek, Joon-ho Bong and Won-jun Ha
Starring:Kang-ho Song, Hie-bong Byeon, Hae-il Park, Du-Na Bae, Ah-Sung Ko and Scott Wilson
Rated R / 1 hour, 59 minutes
Now playing in selected cities
(out of four)
There are strange genre combinations, and then there is The Host. Joon-ho Bong's
latest offering hails from the tradition of monster movies, but doubles as a
comedy, a genuine family drama and a scathing political commentary. No doubt
Sean Hannity and his ilk will freak out (assuming such people have refined taste
and actually seek out foreign and independent movies, which I doubt) at the
movie's anti-American sentiment.
But it's no different from what the original Godzilla did. In that 1954 classic, the
monster is created as an unintended side effect of American nuclear testing. In The
Host, a giant fish-like creature -- which hilariously rumbles toward its victims in
plain sight, rather than hiding in the shadows like most movie monsters -- is
created after an irresponsible Army surgeon dumps hundreds of bottles of
formaldehyde down the drain, and into Seoul's Han River.
That scene opens up the film and is one of the most
subtly hilarious scenes I've seen in years. The surgeon, played by American movie
veteran Scott Wilson (In Cold Blood, Junebug, In the Heat of the Night), is sick of
the dust that has gathered all over his bottles and equipment, and he orders his
young subordinate (Brian Rhee) to dump the bottles down the drain. The young
doctor hesitates, incredulously explaining how toxic formaldehyde is. "The Han is
a broad river," the veteran doctor explains. "Let's try to be broad-minded about
this." It's a brilliant line, delivered with deadpan precision by Wilson, and it sets
the tone for the rest of the film.
It takes years before the creature actually makes its appearance and begins
terrorizing the citizens of South Korea, but when it does, panic starts to spread.
People are quarantined because of a mysterious virus supposedly caused by
contact with the monster. The government intervenes, as does, eventually, the
American government. (You can see where the allegory is going here -- America
tries to intervene and solve a problem that it caused in the first place.)
At the center of the human story -- and this is a
surprisingly human movie -- is Park Gang-Du (Kang-ho Song), who must escape
the hospital in which he's held captive to rescue his young daughter, who has been
taken by the monster.
Director and co-writer Joon-ho Bong consistently finds creative ways to keep his
audience on edge. The film does not walk in lockstop with other monster movies
-- or other movies, for that matter. In scenes that should be emotionally
devastating, Bong will go the slapstick route. In scenes where we'd expect subtly
and quiet, the film gets right in our face. It's going in multiple directions at once
but never gets sidetracked. Loads of filmmakers try to blend styles and formulas,
with varying degrees of success. This is how you do it, right here. The film is not
so serious that the comedy seems out of place, nor is it too ridiculous that it
becomes sheer parody. There is a delicate balance when it comes to movies like
this, and Joon-ho Bong has found it.
Of course, that's basically the long way around saying
that this is a brilliantly entertaining piece of moviemaking. Take all past monster
movies and all political knowledge out of the equation, and this is still
entertainment at its best. The story elements and character traits that we take for
granted come together at the most opportune -- and most creative -- times, and
the film's developments remain consistently surprising.
There's a reason The Host is the biggest box-office hit in Korean history. Driven
by an offbeat, matter-of-fact humorous sensibility, The Host is brilliant with its
deliberate cheesiness, surprising with its heart and completely effective as a hybrid
political/thriller/comedy. Godzilla, eat your heart out.
Read more by Chris Bellamy