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Monday 26 March 2007

Movie Review of The Host

by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

The Host (original Korean title: Gwoemul)

Directed by Joon-ho Bong

Written by Chul-hyun Baek, Joon-ho Bong, Won-jun Ha

Starring: Kang-ho Song, Hie-bong Byeon, Hae-il Park, Du-na Bae, Ah-sung Ko

Both: This is the best monster movie since Tremors.

Howard Waldrop: And like Tremors, it knows everything it's doing and every time it violates the Them! template. This is the first monster movie from the viewpoints of ordinary Joes and Jolenes. (It's as if Them! had been narrated from the point-of-view of the Lodges, the father-and-sons flying the model airplane who are attacked by the giant ants in that movie.)

Both: Not only are there big echoes of Them! (the storm drains) here, there's also: a dead-and-dying human food-locker a la Attack Of The Giant Leeches and Beast From Haunted Cave, a disease spread by the thingie (Beast From 20.000 Fathoms), the created-by-pollution theme of Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (sans Godzilla), and of course since the thing's in the Han River half the time, Jaws.

Lawrence Person: This is a solid monster movie that happens to have been made in Korea, nothing more, nothing less. The science is stupid (as it usually is), the government attempts to contain the monster are woefully incompetent (as they usually are), and the script and acting are above average (as they usually aren't). It's easy to over-praise this (as many critics have), as the last solid American effort here was Eight Legged Freaks, and this is clearly a better film. Plus it has more humor and surprises in store than the average entry in the genre. But it's not (to my mind) in the same league as Aliens or Tremors, though it gets the job done.

Plot: Some six years before the main action, a doctor on an American base has his Korean underling pour bottles of formaldehyde down a drain and into the Han. Then we jump to now, where three generations of the same family (grandfather, his somewhat dim-witted son, and Hyun-seo, the son's sharp-as-a-tack daughter) all live and work in the same convenience store/squid shack on the banks of the Han. Soon the mutant monster (sort of a giant legged fish/salamander thing with a tri-fold mouth and a prehensile tail) leaps out of the water and starts running around swallowing victims whole, then taking them back to its sewer holding cell lair, where it regurgitates them for later munching. Hyun-seo is among the ones taken, and presumed dead until dad gets a call from her on her cheap, unreliable cell-phone. Soon Hyun-seo's grandpa, father, former-student-firebrand uncle and archery-champion aunt have to figure out how to escape from the government quarantine center they're confined to (as per the title, the government believes the monster is host of a deadly new disease) to rescue Hyun-seo and kill the monster.

HW: The family here is like a real family; death and loss hurt. There's a hilarious slapstick mourning scene at a memorial service for the missing-and-presumed dead daughter. You feel for each of them all through the movie. The opening scenes with the family are totally naturalistic; those leading up to the first appearance of the monster (violating the Them! template; the monster is seen early on) are a comedy of errors involving a missing toasted squid arm.

The extra work is the best I've seen in movies since The Last Days Of Pompeii (1935) and San Francisco (1936) — they look scared in a totally naturalistic way. Not like they were moving around on cues from an assistant director with a megaphone. They move like individuals, not en masse. It's exciting and refreshing,

LP: One of the biggest strengths of the film is Joon-ho Bong's use of the particular sewer and bridge architecture lining the Han. It's easy to imagine the seed of the film coming from him walking underneath one of the bridges and saying to himself "Wow, this would be a really cool place to set a monster movie." And indeed it is. It also allows the monster to hang upside down from trestles and swing between girders like a champion gymnast, which is both totally cool and totally unbelievable.

HW: The monster is swell; it moves fast; it's got a triplex mouth (a cross between a squid's and a grasshopper's) and yet: it's never silly, because you're always watching it from the viewpoint of someone you give a damn about. That's why we're not disappointed for the rest of the movie after we see the creature early on...

It's not every day that the protagonists left against the monster at the climax are a homeless guy, a former student activist with a load of Molotov cocktails, a big guy wielding a traffic-sign post and an Olympic bronze medalist in archery (and the movie makes you believe all but the homeless guy are from the same family).

LP: My biggest quibbles with the film are its combination of a slight anti-American slant combined with the usual lazy monster movie science. Even though it seems to be based on a real-life incident, in the movie the formaldehyde-dumping incident seems deeply unmotivated. (You dumped the bottles because they were dusty? And it's those 100-odd gallons poured out rather than the other countless tons of industrial pollutants that made the monster?) The government response is even lamer than your average monster movie government response, and the "Agent Yellow" subplot doesn't work for me at all (if you know there's no virus, why are you still going through the giant rigmarole?). That's why, though The Host is a pretty fine exemplar of the monster movie form, it doesn't transcend it.

Those points aside, if you want to see an intelligent, well-acted, well-paced monster movie with just enough twists and turns to keep you guessing, The Host delivers the goods.

HW: The New Yorker (of all places) raved about this two weeks ago. Now I see why. Sometimes it takes fresh eyes to show Americans how to really do an art form they (Americans) created, but seem to have wandered away from in ennui or indifference (or something) these past couple of decades or so. It's like the old story of Hughes Panassi, a French critic, telling Bob Crosby how to really play jazz, and Crosby saying: "Do we tell you how to jump on a grape?"

In this case, some talented Koreans have shown Hollywood how to jump on a grape.

© 2007 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.