The monster movie has certainly changed a lot over the last 70 years - nowhere more impressively than in the field of special effects. Where once creatures had to be cast out of clay and manipulated frame by frame to create a static sense of stop motion animation, or required actual real live lizards to be festooned with fake fins and tossed among miniaturized backdrops, our current crop of filmmakers can simply call on their computer to create eye-popping examples of unreal evil. Jurassic Park more or less proved that a jerry-rigged realization for beasts could result in box office gold, and now Gwoemul (The Host, in English) is aiming for the same dollar-rich demographic. Granted, it's nothing more than The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms bolstered by lots of motherboard manipulation, but it's one hilarious helluva ride along the way.
After the Han River is contaminated by a 'purposeful' chemical spill (thank you very much, America!), a strange sea creature, about the size of a city bus, starts stalking the sewers (and streets) of Seoul. An attack on a riverside retreat affects Park Gang-Du, a lazy slacker who helps his father run a local snack stand. In an instant, his daughter Hyun-seo goes missing, and the rest of the family are in a panic. They also end up on the run from the law. Seems the beast is considered the "host" for a nasty virus, and a major quarantine is underway. Because of their interaction with the monster, the Parks become wanted fugitives. Things get even more complicated when Gang-Du discovers that Hyun-seo may still be alive. He and his siblings must discover the truth before the US uses something called "Agent Yellow" to kill the creature – effectively wiping out everything...and anyone within close proximity of the bio-weapon's path.
It's the set up for a standard search and rescue narrative – something lost having to be regained under the auspices of personal gumption and an impending threat. But because this movie was made in Korea, and not in the focus group fancying US of A, The Host tends to avoid most of the genre's obvious stumbling blocks. Indeed, it generates a great deal more interest in areas your typical Hollywood blockbuster avoids, while sticking rather closely to the fright film formula of your standard Bert I. Gordon 'beast on the loose' B-picture. With the added weight of CGI (this movie just would not work with some other kind of F/X) and the excellent use of its gleaming big city backdrop, we end up with something unique and totally removed from the typical western ideal of action/adventure. Indeed, The Host may seem familiar, but it has major distinctions that make it wholly original.
The first major difference you notice is the level of emotion used to support the storyline. This is manipulative moviemaking at its most enjoyable – direct, unfettered and completely shameless. When deadbeat daddy Park Gang-Du (actor Kang-ho Song looking like an overweight skate rat) looses his daughter in the opening monster melee, we really feel for him. Similarly, when the rest of the family shows up to share their (and give him) grief, the outpouring of pain – both pro and con - is overblown and grand. It is obvious that director Joon-ho Bong is elevating the sequence for high comedy value, but the performances from his actors really sell a sense of sorrow and sadness. Later on, when Gang-Du learns that his daughter, Hyun-seo, may still be alive, his drive to discover the truth and set things straight carries the film past many of its more problematic points.
Make no mistake, this is not a perfect film. Indeed, the cultural differences can be staggering at times. The police are painted as totally corrupt, ignoring the pleas of a plaintive father as the ravings of a lunatic, and only capable of action when a bribe is involved. Similarly, the US is painted as a country of cocky, international thugs. They rum ramshackle over the Koreans, giving orders and hiding crucial information in a conspiratorial X-Files like manner. In addition, some of the ancillary characters never pay off, or worse, feel included to complement an eventual action sequence showdown (like Gang-Du's sister, the Olympic medallist...in archery). We keep waiting for the time spent on them to deliver some manner of denouement. In the end, they are merely cogs in a well-meaning genre effort.
Still, The Host has a lot going for it. It is absolutely hilarious at times. Like the Bollywood style of cinema which has no problem mixing cinematic styles for the sake of a storyline, The Host uses satire, slapstick, some pointed political commentary and a lot of overall schlock value to keep the entertainment factor lively and up front. This is not a deep thinking film, not a real environmentalist mandate like some of the Godzilla films can be. Sure, there's the whole "America screwed us" subtext, but the last act protest that coincides with the creature/character's face off is nothing but wasted window dressing. No, the point of The Host appears to be humanity rising up against a horrible monster and showing it who's boss. In this case, director Joon-ho definitely delivers the beast butt-kicking goods.
This is also not an action packed film. The overall filmmaking tends to be more subtle than spectacular in dealing with the monster attacks. The opening chaos is expertly realized, several sensational tracking shots following the creature as it moves amongst the populace, picking out those it will eat...and worse, those it will save for later. There is also an excellent sequence where a victim tries to escape the fiend's bone-strewn lair. It works as both story and suspense. Sometimes, Joon-ho stops the scene before it has completely played out. Other times, he jumps forward, assuming we'll understand that, somehow, a character got from Point 'A' to Point 'B' without much difficulty. It's not a fault, really, just an unusual aesthetic choice. The CGI is also a bit uneven. While the beast itself moves with seamless ease, the varying elements – fire, humans – it interacts with look a little lame.
All minor quibbles aside, this is still an excellent example of how foreign films are matching the Western cinema point by motion picture point. First, Asians literally reinvented the crime drama, the Hong Kong style of operatic gunplay giving way to a more metaphysical approach. Then the Japanese stepped in and explored the old fashioned creepiness of ghosts and spirits with the now fading J-horror fad. Korea is currently coming up with intriguing combinations, with everything from The Tale of Two Sisters to The Host collapsing categories while dealing with concrete cinematic staples. Call it Leviathan Goes Nutzoid or The Terror of the Truck-Sized Tadpole, but this entertaining monster movie will definitely satisfy your creature feature needs.
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