Satire, family drama, monster mash, comedy, horror, thriller, action — make it stop! The South Korean film The Host (2006), directed by Bong Joon-hu, is a veritable mash-up of tones and tropes, less a pastiche of genres than a palette of moods, with a soupcon of comedy here, a dash of horror there and a big slimy mutant monster throughout. I’ll admit I was a bit confused by its singular style from time to time — when the main character loses it in a hospitable, hysterically crying out for his daughter, do we laugh, cringe or commiserate? None, I guess. Or all. All I know is that I enjoyed this movie thoroughly, even if I can’t completely understand why.
I know that I liked its throwback to old-fashioned monster movies that have faded away with time — or rather, have been supplanted by mindless, sadistic showpieces of torture, numbing and worthless as they are. (I realize that’s quite a jump in the horror film continuum, but the current torture movies are by far the most vacuous.) There was something classic in the old monster movies of yore, and The Host is in many ways both a winking tribute to and modern incarnation of those films.
Like Godzilla in Tokyo, the creature in The Host (known as, whad’ya know, The Host) is seen terrorizing the poor inhabitants of Seoul, South Korea, who scatter and scream to and fro. The Host is a fish-like creature with multiple legs, a long, prehensile tale and warts all over its body — the mutant result of toxic chemicals poured into the Han River. It either swallows its victims or carries them with its tail, and ominously descends into the water with unconscious Homo sapiens in tow (reminiscent of Creature from the Black Lagoon), only to deposit them in its lair in the sewer, collecting them for some unknown, sinister purpose.
One of those victims happens to be little 13-year-old Park Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung), a feisty, precocious young girl whose family subsequently goes on a hunt for the monster, determined to get her back at any cost. The ragtag band is spearheaded by her deadbeat dad Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), who takes care of his father’s food stand, often sleeping on the job and stealing food from the customers’ plates. Gang-du is later joined by his uptight, passionate brother Park Nam-il (Park Hae-il) and his taciturn archer sister Park Nam-joo (Bae Du-na). It is in this dysfunctional but caring family that the movie finds its heart, and their Mystery, Inc. antics are simultaneously funny and touching.
But there’s more than melodrama and monsters to this hodgepodge horror show. This baby has bite, in way of political satire. I forgot to mention that it was an American pathologist stationed at the U.S. Army Base who ordered a Korean surrogate to dump all the chemicals into the river (this apparently actually happened, setting off a wave of anti-American sentiment in Korea in 2000 — sans mutant monster, of course).
And the presence of the U.S. is felt throughout the movie, just as the current U.S. presence in South Korea is felt in real life. The U.S. Army proclaims that the monster is a host of a deadly virus threatening to wipe out entire populations — a claim that turns out to have been falsified, only so it could test out the deadly Agent Yellow chemical. In many ways, the governments and army officials are the most terrifying presence in the movie, as they try to quarantine the “affected” Gang-du and his family, preventing them from reaching Hyun-seo. It is also interesting to note that all the Americans who appear in the film are rather homely and slimy, and carry evil intentions — a not-so-subtle subtle parallel to The Host itself.
But all this hypothesizing and looking-into-dark-corners aside — The Host is also a visual and technical triumph. The riveting soundtrack, composed by Korean guitarist Lee Byeong Woo, is at times playful — sometimes sounding burlesque — at other times melodramatic, and always perfectly complementary. The cinematography employs a rather droll color palette, which seems to be a South Korean staple, although it enhances the mood of the movie. Finally, the monster itself (a mixture of animatronics and CGI) was not always believable and sometimes hokey — in true 50s-style form.
Since its release in 2006, The Host has proven wildly popular, breaking domestic box office records and garnering substantial critical acclaim. All of which proves that there is still a market for these types of films, just as there will always be human desire for sensationalism and classic monster tales, straight out of storybooks, not out of the demented mind of an Eli Roth. And The Host, with its bread-and-butter thrills and its delightful pinwheel of emotions and moods, is highbrow schlock.
Cornell Cinema will be showing The Host Friday, May 4 at 7:30 and 10:00 PM in Uris, Thursday, May 10 at 9:30 in WSH, Friday, May 11 at 7:30 and 10:00 PM in Uris and Saturday, May 12 at 7:30 and 10:00 PM in Uris.