After watching a plethora of Korean films and chasing them with a monster movie, I thought – Korean monster movie! Specifically The Host by Joon-oh Bong, the same guy who directed Snowpiercer (which I haven’t seen yet). The Host came out in 2006 and was Joon-oh Bong’s third film. It follows the slow (I’m not just saying that, the movie says it and proves it later) shop worker Park Gang-doo and his role in a mysterious series of monster attacks. It is an oft raved about monster movie and I was excited to watch it.
Too bad it totally didn’t meet my expectations. Okay, that’s more than a bit of a mislead. But I did want to purge myself upfront of the weird personal expectations I had. I have an odd fixation on the idea of large underwater monsters. It can’t be something real (so Jaws is no good) and it has to stay underwater a lot. I haven’t found a movie that quite tickles this yet. Nor am I sure what it stems from, which in of itself is weird for me. Anyway I was kind of hoping The Host would resolve this particular quest for me, and it absolutely did not. The creature in the films spends most of the running time above the surface of the water. I didn’t let this affect my enjoyment of the film, I just wanted to drain myself of this unmet expectation in the hopes of ensuring it’s unimportance in my writing.
Wow, that’s a weird one hey? Moving on.
So the film opens with this weird scene that never really pays off in any direct way. It shows an English-speaking scientist who bullies his Korean lab assistant into dumping various bottles of chemicals down the drain. The all contain formaldehyde. It’s against the law to dump stuff down this drain, as it drains to the Han River. This, as I said before, doesn’t really pay off. The scientist never reappears in any capacity. If anything this is the most information we get about the monster in The Host, a nice, simple, origin story. This scene actually parallels a real life incident involving the US Military, some 200 bottles of formaldehyde and a Korean mortician. This real life incident was actually a source of some mild tension between South Korea and the States at the time. Which leads us to the other effect of this open – it almost serves as a thematic mislead. It seems like it’s setting up a heavy environmental message, something that a few initial shots seemed to reinforce, but ultimately wasn’t the case at all. It does set up the first of a few unsubtle anti-American jabs, but that’s for later.
A few vignettes showing various sightings of the creature over time follow this intro scene. The first is of two fishermen who catch the creature in a cup when it’s still wee. “How many tails do you think it had?” One of them queries. We also see a suicidal businessman standing on a bridge, who spots something in the water just before he jumps. These scenes basically serve as a nice timeline, establishing the slow growth of the creature in a cryptic and mysterious way. These are the last scenes where the audience will wonder what the titular creature looks like. (The English title might be The Host but the Korean title, Goemul, just means “monster.”) Part of what simultaneously separates this from similar movies and establishes it as a genuine monster movie (as apposed to a horror movie featuring a monster) is how upfront it is with the creature. The same scene that introduces the main characters also introduces the monster.
This first scene opens with Park Gang-doo, his father, and his daughter working at their food stand by the Han River. Gang-doo’s sister is competing at some sort of archery tournament at the same time, and they’re ducking back and forth watching her on TV. She waits too long to take her final shot, and drops to third place, taking home a bronze medal. Park Gang-doo wanders down to the river to give a customer a fried squid (after he absentmindedly oh ate part of the first one), and sees the park-goers staring at something in the water. Gang-doo joins them and watches something dark drop off the underbelly of a nearby bridge and slide through the river. He chucks a beer can at it and watches as something snatches it up. “Must be a dolphin,” the crowd mutters. “An Amazonian River monster, for sure.” The crowd stares at the water hunting for it. They also start chucking garbage at the river, which was one of those images that added to the initial environmental-message mislead. Gang-doo turns just in time to see the truck-sized monster loping across the riverbank towards them.
This launches an incredible scene that sees the monster tearing through the park-going crowd as Park Gang-doo, and others, attempt to flee. The monster smashes into a trailer and we see bloody hands attempting to escape. It catches an unobservant woman by the head and drags her along with it for a while. Gang-doo and some sort of American Military dude (on vacation, or at least off-duty) attack the creature. They hurl cobblestones and attack it with a street sign and some of its blood splashes around, seriously injuring the soldier. Park Gang-doo runs through a massive panicking crowd, cutting through their food stand to grab his daughter and bring her along with him as he runs for his life. They trip and Gang-doo grabs her hand and keeps running. But then he looks back and sees he’s grabbed a completely different girl. The monster, naturally, grabs and drags his daughter into the water with it. This is all basically the first scene of the film.
The US military tells the Korean government that the aforementioned soldier has contracted some sort of disease from his contact with the monster. In the long term this turns out to be another jab at the US military along with some thinly veiled Agent Orange references later. The government slides into quarantine, scared of the biological contamination. Park Gang-doo, who was splashed with the creature’s blood earlier, is immediately quarantined. He and his family, including his sister, father, and previously unmentioned (by the movie and me) brother, who united in the face of their loss, protest this quarantine but go pretty much ignored. They’re not allowed to go anywhere, they’re trapped in a hospital, tests are to be run, and they are generally ignored. Which is when they get a phone call from Park Gang-doo’s daughter, Park Hyun-seo, who’s still alive.
This launches a sprawling and compelling quest to rescue Park Hyun-seo from the monster. The movie switches from character to character, builds up a nice background texture out of the governmental and public response, and drops in all kinds of interesting details. There’s a riot, homeless children, police, gangsters, and corrupt doctors. There’s also quite a dose of unexpectedly brutal moments later in the film, including a death that I don’t want to spoil, but that ties into Park Gang-doo’s actions in a deeply morbid way.
The movie hits this wonderful over-the-top operatic pitch right from the start. When the Park family assembles to mourn the apparent loss of Park Hyun-seo they don’t just cry. They moan and wail and thrash and fight each other and keel over and shout at photographers and writhe across the floor sobbing. It’s the kind of thing you don’t often see. Movies tend to skip over the emotional devastation people would actually feel when loosing a loved one in favour of muted emotion or a streamlined transition towards, say, vengeance-seeking. That type of thing. You don’t expect to see a whole family flail and bawl like that, for as long as they do. It’s brutal and upsetting yet also unbelievably exaggerated and theatrical.
The whole film drops in and out of scenes like that, including the ending, which at first seems devastatingly bleak, then becomes incredibly cathartic (it’s still fairly bleak though. That cathartic scene is almost hilariously exaggerated, but the effect is wonderful. In another moment the monster regurgitates just a nutty number of human bones. It’s like a constant stream, way more than one would expect. Maybe more than is logical. The first scene in the movie follows the same format, with a pan over an insane quantity of empty formaldehyde bottles. Sure the number may be fairly factual, but the pan is so long that it starts to border on the comical. There’s definitely a dark satirical edge to the scene, and, indeed, to a number of the scenes in the film.
Which should lead us beautifully into a discussion of the film’s true strength, but I’d like to belay that for a second in favour of taking about something I feel is becoming a sort of a tradition for me. It’s a monster movie, so we have to take a second and talk about the monster! I appreciate it’s a pretty nerdy interest but the design of these sorts of things is just so interesting. The monster is meant to be a mutated fish, and designer Chi Wei-chen really stayed close to that concept. The monster’s silhouette, especially in motion, is still essentially that of a large fish. Unlike most fish this one doesn’t end in a caudal fin, instead it has a serpentine, prehensile tail. It doesn’t have vertically opposed jaws, which honestly seems a shame to me, given that fish invented that jaw configuration. Instead it has a complex series of opposed and nesting mandibles. Basically Predator’s mouth. It has bubbly, deformed eyes, and a few fish tails fused to its back. At first glance it’s not quite as iconic as I would like, mainly around the complex and deformed head. Where it really shines is in motion. Its amphibious, flexible feet, with long toes lends the creature a strange loping, rocking gait that’s rather unusual. It also swings its body rather like a pendulum…or maybe a more apt description is like a slinky going down the stairs. Except instead of doing it down stairs it hangs upside down under structures and swings around underneath before pouncing. It lends the creature a unique silhouette and movement, and goes a long way towards making a more memorable antagonist.
What really makes this movie special is the actual thematic core of it. I’ve only talked about the potentially accidentally misleading sequence and the few shots fired in the direction of the States. Monster movies live or die on how well the themes interact with the monster, typically the monster serves as a concrete realization of the themes. Frankenstein‘s about a father’s responsibilities, Dracula‘s about how foreign people and sex is scary, The Wolf Man is about loss of control, and so on. So Frankenstein is a new form of life, Dracula is a foreigner who spreads his disease by swapping fluids, and Wolf Man routinely looses control of his identity and behaviour. The Host prefers a slightly less blatant method of communicating its themes. Joon-oh Bong doesn’t distill the movie’s themes into a monster shaped form. Instead the monster becomes the catalyst for events that help Joon-oh Bong drive his themes home. At its heart, The Host is a monster movie about how ineffectual and incompetent the government is. Korean and American government. In fact, given some of his later work it seems likely Joon-oh Bong has a rather negative view of most governments, and maybe even the concept in general. Again, haven’t seen Snowpiercer yet, so I won’t say anything too grand about Bong’s personal ideology. Not that seeing one more movie would allow me tht right, but you know what I mean. The movie is filled with government officials mishandling events, spreading misinformation, and grossly endangering the public. All the events of the movie are basically a result of terrible governmental actions. It’s a wonderful, pointed film. One of the best monster movies out there.