Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2007

Blaming America has never looked so good

'The Host' is a masterfully, hilariously realized monster movie-cum-political fable

The Host
Magnolia Pictures
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

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