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Reviews » HD DVD Reviews » The Host (HD DVD)
The Host (HD DVD)
Magnolia Home Entertainment // R // July 24, 2007 // Region 0
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 30, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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Magnolia Pictures mounted a spectacular marketing campaign for The Host, churning out a series of gorgeous promotional art and building a tremendous buzz online as the Korean monster flick clawed its way through the festival circuit. I was so taken in by the wide-eyed awe of its trailer that I was ready to make a road trip just to give the movie a look before it bowed out of theaters. Despite the near-universal praise the film has earned since its limited domestic release this past March and no matter how much I really wanted to like The Host, I have to admit to feeling let down. The Host takes a lot of chances, but its stilted pacing, awkward sense of humor, and thin characterization leave me as one of the film's few detractors.

Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) trudges out of his family's food stand along the Han River to redeliver some partially-gnawed-on squid, but his customers are more interested in a black, barely discernable smudge hanging underneath the bridge than whether or not the bloated thirtysomething has snuck off with one of the tentacles. Gang-du chucks a can of beer in the water that's instantly snapped up by the creature, and after everyone else has their fun lobbing fistfuls of garbage into the Han, they shrug it off and look for some other shiny object to attract their attention. At least, that's the plan until the beast starts bounding down along the banks of the river, devouring half the people in its path and mauling everyone else. Gang-du loses his tween daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung) in the chaos that follows, watching helplessly as she's dragged across the broad banks of the Han in the beastie's tail.

Fearing some sort of contagion, everyone the creature encountered is crammed into a hospital for quarantine while the military sets out on a bug hunt. The rest of Gang-du's family tries as best they can to comfort him -- his kinda-sorta-competitive archer sister Nam-joo (Bae Du-na), his hot-tempered, unemployable brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il), and stodgy patriarch Hie-bong (Byeon Hie-bong) -- but Gang-du seems to be teetering on the brink. The hospital staff writes him off as nuts when he reports getting a call on his cell from his seemingly dead daughter, but Gang-du's family sides with him as they bust out of the hospital, risking life and limb to scour the city's sewers before the beastie gobbles down a mouthful of Hyun-seo Tartar.

The Host isn't exactly the monster movie the trailers and posters make it out to be. Following its dazzling introduction as it wreaks havoc along the Han River, the creature is glimpsed only sporadically until the movie draws to its climax, instead shifting its focus towards the dysfunctional lower-middle class Park family and their search for Hyun-seo. Placing such an emphasis on characters and their quests is familiar territory for a horror/adventure flick -- one of the blurbs on the front cover compares The Host to Jaws, for instance, and that's a movie defined almost entirely through characterization. It's just that as likeable and as talented as The Host's cast is, I didn't find much of anyone in the Park family particularly compelling. Only Hyun-seo is consistently shown as having much of a spark, and she's one of the least prominent figures in the movie's meandering second act. The creature rears its slimy head just enough to keep the pace from dragging excessively, but there's a much stronger hundred minute movie struggling to squirm its way out of The Host's excessive two hour runtime.

Those moments when the beast is on-screen are the movie's best, beginning with a blitzkrieg just a few minutes into the movie. Many of the attacks are swift and unflinchingly brutal, particularly the savage assaults that bookend the film, although the most tense sequences are set in the cavernous pit the creature uses as its lair. Hyun-seo is surrounded by mounds of rotting corpses, somehow managing to survive her time in the belly of the beast but unable to escape once spat out. Her unwavering determination in finding a way out of the claustrophobic tomb is responsible for most of The Host's suspense.

The creature is a primal, destructive force of nature, not all that far removed from the Jaws comparison on the cover even if its chemically-mutated origins owe much more to Godzilla. Its design -- an almost otherworldly fish and amphibian mesh -- is fantastic, and The Host is so confident in the strength of its digital effects that it doesn't hide the beast in fleeting glimpses or mask it in shadows and rain. No, the monster doesn't shy away from the camera at all, and many of the most elaborate effect sequences are set in broad daylight. The computer-generated monster effects -- tackled primarily by The Orphanage, whose filmography also includes Hellboy and the Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End -- hold up remarkably well to that unforgiving exposure, especially considering that this isn't a $120 million effects spectacle. The beast has a convincing heft as it plows across the grass and concrete of Seoul, but it also boasts a sort of acrobatic grace as it flings itself across the bridge by its tail. The digital handiwork is impressive enough that it blends in seamlessly with the practical effects, though there are times when the rampaging monster doesn't entirely gel with its surroundings, and the effects really fall apart in the incendiary climax. Still, the design and execution of the beast is strong enough to help prop up some of the shortcomings in the storytelling.

The Host juggles an uneasy mix of comedy in this monster movie, ranging from pratfalls and fart jokes to darkly humorous shots of hapless folks being devoured in a single gulp. The movie doesn't handle the disparate tones particularly well, and there were some scenes early on where I'd sincerely have no idea if what I was watching was being played for laughs or if it was supposed to be unsettling. I quickly found myself in step with the movie's rhythm, particularly as it became increasingly clear what a dark movie The Host is. It's expected in a monster movie that some of the main cast will be killed off along the way, but The Host is willing to shrug off some of the usual conventions and butcher characters who aren't so obvious, culminating in a decidedly bleak finale.

Director Joon-ho Bong and cinematographer Hyung-ku Kim shot The Host with an exceptional visual eye, and the skillfully composed shots of the bridge towering over the Han River and the catacomb-like sewers sprawling underneath the streets of Seoul establish a stronger sense of atmosphere than a render farm in Palo Alto or hundreds of thousands of dollars of sets could ever hope to accomplish. The Host is a beautiful film, and it benefits greatly from the additional resolution these high definition formats have to offer.

The Host mixes in some social and political commentary fairly deftly. I wouldn't call it subtle, exactly, but I didn't feel as if I was being bludgeoned with its messages about class, political spin doctoring, and bureaucratic dismissiveness. Some viewers on these shores may wince at the handful of swipes at the U.S., but The Host is every bit as critical -- if not moreso -- of the Korean government.

The Host is a movie I certainly respect; it's extremely ambitious and beautifully shot, and I particularly enjoyed the mayhem that bookends the film. Still, its meandering second act leaves The Host overstaying its welcome, and I didn't find the story or its off-kilter family as engaging as I would've hoped. Admittedly, my mixed reaction doesn't seem to all that widely held among most reviewers -- the movie's been almost unilaterally well-received online and off, even managing to shatter box office records in Korea -- but I'd more enthusiastically recommend renting The Host first rather than shell out twenty-five bucks to buy it sight-unseen.

Video: Presented at its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and encoded with Microsoft's VC-1 codec, The Host looks absolutely spectacular in high definition. The level of clarity and fine detail is consistently striking, such as the rich facial textures and distinct pores beneath beads of sweat, individual droplets in the torrential rainfalls, the grime caking Hyun-seo's face in the subterranean tomb, and even the blue fibers on the masks in the hospital. The film's contrast and colors are both exaggerated but emerge without any concerns. The hues reflect the bleaker and more subdued tone of the film in its second act, but when it's bright and sunny outside, the exceptionally vivid palette pops off the screen. The VC-1 encoding retains the slightly gritty texture of the photography, and no compression hiccups or perceptible flaws in the source could be spotted throughout. Its skewed visual style may not be to all tastes, but as easy as it is to get jaded after immersing myself in the ridiculous number of HD DVDs and Blu-ray discs I have over the past year and change, The Host stands out to my eyes as one of the more thoroughly impressive titles I've seen in high definition.

Audio: This HD DVD of The Host includes no fewer than four soundtracks -- five, if you count the audio commentary -- but some equivalent to the PCM audio from the Blu-ray release isn't among them. With as often as Magnolia has included some flavor of lossless audio on their HD DVDs, the omission of at least a TrueHD track here is somewhat disappointing.

The Host offers soundtracks in its original Korean along with an English dub, each of which are presented in DTS and Dolby Digital Plus 5.1. Flipping back and forth between the various tracks, I couldn't spot any noteworthy difference between them, at least aside from the fact that the English dubbing is awfully clunky. Lossless or not, the audio is still outstanding, establishing a strong sense of ambiance and boasting numerous directional effects that even extend to the film's dialogue. The mix is at its most aggressive during the creature's rampages, particularly the wall-rattling roar when the beast is at full gallop, but bass is thick and substantial throughout. The score takes advantage of the multichannel mix as well, particularly the thunderous flurry of toms when a bunch of enterprising folks decide to cash in on a reward for the Parks.

Unlike Magnolia's release of District B13, which only included English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing (meaning that descriptions of sound effects and the like were captioned along with the dialogue), The Host includes both traditional English and SDH streams alongside Spanish subs. These are true subtitles, by the way, not just a rote transcription of the English dub. It's not a particularly weighty concern in the case of The Host, but none of the Korean text is subtitled in English, just dialogue.

Extras: The Host sported a sprawling special edition on DVD, and for whatever reason, it's been pared down a good bit for this HD DVD release. Reading through Ian Jane's DVD review, this disc is missing director Bong Joon-Ho's "Reflections", several featurettes about the crew, some fifteen minutes of deleted scenes, deleted news clips, three effects featurettes, a couple sets of casting tapes, some of the additional Korean trailers, and pieces on the set design, sound effects, and the score. That's a hell of a lot to throw away. I have trouble believing that all of this couldn't have fit on this HD DVD, especially considering that none of the extras related to the film are in high definition. Even if space was a concern, a second disc should have been provided.

That said, there's still quite a bit on this HD DVD. Eight minutes of deleted scenes -- the only anamorphic widescreen extras on the set -- expand the setup about the as-yet-unseen beastie's presence, tack another gag onto the chatter with the lazy-eyed American doctor, further flesh out the epilogue, and string together a bunch of extremely short CGI shots of the monster. It's not difficult to guess why most of those ended up on the cutting room floor.

There's also an eight minute gag reel that starts off with a slew of CG render jokes -- the creature running on a treadmill, one of the effects artists spewing a stream of bones and bile-caked skulls, and dancing in monster drool, to rattle off a few -- and closes with the cast cracking up while recording a couple of promos.

The disc's featurettes, all of which are presented in standard definition and in their original Korean, are divided into three groups. "Making of The Host" (10 min.) touches on the real-life dumping in the Han River that inspired the story and charts the evolution of the script, particularly how the screenplay was shaped by the writers' familiarity with the actors and locations rather than working the other way around. "Physical Special Effects" (5 min.) offers a look at the extensive tests the crew did to prep for filming, dropping drums of concrete off bridges, crushing trucks, landing on just the right size for the monster's rubber mouth, and opting against bombarding the cast with curry powder. "Memories of the Sewer" (10 min.) is a poison pen love letter to the agony of shooting in the sewers of Seoul, pitting the cast and crew against an indescribable stench, rats, frozen sewage, rashes, ingested raw sewage, and the threat of tapeworms. A three minute montage of storyboards rounds out this set.

The block of featurettes about the creature is also essential viewing, and it too is chopped up into four sections. "Designing the Creature" (11 min.) follows the evolution of conceptual art and how each of the handful of artists contributed to its ultimate design. "Puppet Animatronics" (7 min.) shows the monster's animatronic head being unveiled to the cast and crew for the first time as well as running through its sculpting, construction, and action on the set. "Animating the Creature" (10 min.) moves to the digital realm, tracing the progression of several shots in the movie from animatics, live action plates, and various stages of compositing and rendering. The last and lengthiest of these is "Bringing the Creature to Life" (21 min.), a mix of candid on-set footage, animation tests, and interviews with the crew in Korea and the digital effects team in San Francisco. This featurette discusses the challenges of this sort of intercontinental collaboration, the obstacles in modeling such a complex creature, and a detailed look at the animation and underlying musculature of the beast.

The last group of featurettes focuses squarely on the cast, beginning with a short interview reel (4 min.) that doesn't amount to more than the five central actors briefly describing each of their characters. The five minute featurette on their training is of more interest, showing the actors getting a pin on archery and blasting shotguns.

Finally, there's a fantastic audio commentary with Joon-ho Bong. The director is joined by British film critic Tony Rayns, who helps moderate the discussion and has a disarmingly charming accent that makes the commentary that much more compelling a listen. Among the topics of discussion are the numerous companies that contributed to the film's effects, The Host's enormous box office success in Korea, its approach to satire and black comedy, delving more in depth into the chemical dumping that inspired the film, the movie's political commentary, the decision to separate the family in the second act, and the budget's influence on the number and orientation of creature shots. The commentary is easily overlooked since it's hidden under the 'Setup' menu rather than offered with the rest of the extras, but it's well worth spending the extra moment or two to uncover.

The only high definition extras are trailers for District B13, The World's Fastest Indian, and The Lost City. For whatever reason, the high definition trailer for The Host that was in rotation on HDNet hasn't been provided, although a standard def, letterboxed Korean trailer did make the cut.

Conclusion: I really wanted to like The Host. It's a monster movie that's much more ambitious and far more willing to buck convention than most, but as teeming as The Host is with clever ideas, they don't quite gel together. My mixed reaction to The Host leaves me recommending this disc more enthusiastically as a rental, but regardless of your reaction to the movie itself, there's no overlooking the strength of its technical presentation and the expansive selection of extras. Hesitantly recommended, but I'll err on the side of caution and say Rent It.

Related Reviews: DVD Talk also has two reviews of the standard definition DVD -- one by Ian Jane and the other by DVD Savant -- as well as a pair of reviews from its theatrical run, if you'd like a second, third, or fourth opinion.
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