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I'm a sucker for horror flicks. The genre has so much potential for good and bad that I can't help but watch a vast majority of the horror films that come my way. So, having my ear perpetually to the ground, there was no way I could miss the hype surrounding The Host. Magnolia Films and HD Net went out of their way to make sure everyone and their mother knew just how great and cool and unique this film is. Thus it was with much anticipation that I finally popped in my brand new Blu-ray copy of the film into my player, preparing to sit back and enjoy what surely must be the best entry in Korean cinema since Oldboy.
Except...that's not what I got at all. While The Host has a few moments going for it, it's mostly just a mishmash of half-formed ideas. The film revolves around a multi-generational family. There's the grandpa, Hie-bong (Byeon Hie-bong), and his three grown up children. The eldest, Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) works for the grandpa at a food stand by the Han River. Gang-du has a young daughter, Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung), who he clearly cherishes, although his attempts at fatherly love come off as immature and more brotherly. Speaking of brothers, Gang-du has one, Nam-il (Park Hae-il), who clearly suffers from an inferiority complex and a bad case of sibling rivalry. They also have a sister, Nam-joo (Bae Du-na), a professional archer whose hesitations prevent her from being among the upper echelons of her profession. As the film opens, the family is scattered. Nam-joo is off at a tournament. Nam-il is just being a layabout, I suppose, and Gang-du and Hyun-seo help out Hie-bong with his stand. Life seems so simple, until a giant monster pops out of the Han and goes on a rampage (the monster's origins, while shown, are entirely unimportant, as the movie never makes use of it to any meaningful purpose). In the ensuing chaos, Gang-du and Hyun-seo are separated, and Gang-du has to watch as the creature (which looks like a mix between a tadpole and an iguana with a vagina for a mouth) carries off Hyun-seo, probably to her death, which is a reasonable assumption, as the monster had just spent the last ten minutes killing everything it sees.
The film then makes an abrupt shift in tone as it turns out that the monster is the host (get it, The Host?) for some unknown virus, and the government quickly quarantines everyone at the site. Shortly after this, Gang-du receives a call from Hyun-seo, confirming she is alive and is being held by the monster. Despite the government's attempts to curtail their actions, the reunited family set out in search of Hyun-seo, looking in sewers all across the country (with the exception of, you guessed it, the sewer right by their food stand, where the creature was first seen). Meanwhile, the United Nations and the United States specifically have decided that Korea cannot handle this unknown threat by themselves, and come in with a biological weapon known as "Agent Yellow," intending to use it on the beast.
The Host doesn't know what kind of movie it wants to be. If it's a monster movie, it really doesn't focus on the monster very much. If it's an intergenerational epic as some have called it, then it needlessly adds and drops family members on a whim. If it's a political statement, then its message is garbled. If it's a comedy, the humor is too broad and out of place to make an impact. I'll say one thing about it, though: It's certainly not the movie that was marketed to American audiences.
Director/co-writer Joon-ho Bong seems to have a million things on his mind at once, and can't decide what to leave out of his movie. Pretty much every facet of the film suffers because of this. The adrenaline-fueled opening rampage starts things off nicely, even with the awkwardly shoehorned-in beach blonde American actor. However, the moment the subplot about the government trying to contain a virus creeps in, the wind goes right out of the monster movie sails. The area where the creature first surfaced is quarantined, meaning that practically nobody comes in contact with it for most of the rest of the film. In its place we get shots of the ever-bickering family searching the sewers fruitlessly while sporadically interspersed TV news footage explains a vague and ill-defined plot about the virus, U.S. intervention, and some kind of massive biological weapon to be used on the monster. The momentum never picks up again.
It doesn't help that the family, indeed most of the characters in the film, are not fully fleshed out, but instead are written with some kind of singular character trait that signifies what they're meant to be. Gang-du is inept but means well, Nam-il is ill-tempered and gruff, Nam-joo is practically crippled by her failings as an archer. Hie-bong is there mostly to keep the peace, and then explain to the audience (by way of telling the other siblings) why each person is more than they appear on the surface. The supporting cast get no better treatment. Side characters are thrown in for a single scene, and then dropped out the moment they're no longer needed for the plot. Most of them could be described as "Evil American Doctor," "Quarantine Guard #1," etc.
The one exception is newcomer Ah-sung Ko as Hyun-Seo. She spends the duration of the film trapped in a sewer by the monster, taking care of another small child the creature had deposited down with her. These isolated scenes are by far the most effective in the entire movie, and Ah-sung Ko does a great job of selling Hyun-Seo's plight. These sequences are so filled with tension and unease that they feel like they belong to a wholly different film by a different creative team.
And that is the real problem with The Host. So much of the movie is spent detailing this amorphous viral threat that the film loses its focus quickly and never regains it. This leads to more than just unnecessary subplots, as large sections of the picture become devoted to an attempt at social and political commentary that falls completely flat. A few of the images do recall the Bird Flu Epidemic, but to no larger point. The creature is not spawned by the virus, but is in fact the carrier for it, if it even exists, something the movie never makes clear. And as I watched, I tried to make a case for The Host pulling a Godzilla move. Specifically, the first Godzilla film voiced apprehension at the use of nuclear power. Godzilla was created because man was too blase with that massive energy source, and the destruction of Tokyo was the consequence. But The Host doesn't seem to be making that kind of point. The creature is not created by a virus. The virus the government is worried about may not even exist. I failed to see how the creature was meant to be a symbol for anything, even if the film tries to capitalize on the general Asian fear of virus outbreak, making the inclusion of the subplot even more head scratching.
Even worse is the film's predilection towards broad slapstick humor. Taken amidst the jumble of other elements floating around, the stabs at levity come off as awkward and forced. There have been plenty of successful horror-comedies through the years, but most of them feature either really good jokes, really good scares, or ideally a combination of both. The Host already doesn't work as a horror flick, and the gags don't flow with the rest of what's going on.
Eventually the film unsuccessfully tries to tie together all the loose ends in a very sloppy climax, which once again features the monster. But by now the initial shock of seeing it on a rampage has faded, and what's left is the glaringly bad CGI the filmmakers used to create the creature. While the first massacre was fun, the ending is burdened by the endless piles of muck we as the audience had to wade through to get to that point. The final conclusion is neither satisfying nor compelling.
There's a good movie hiding inside The Host. Like the virus the creature may carry, the germs of it seep its way through, making you feel like maybe the picture will pick up and cut the fat. The best scenes are so good that it makes the rest of the film look even worse by comparison. There may be enough of quality in The Host to admire it, but not enough to love it. Tighter pacing, a bigger focus on the monster and Hyun-Seo, and a little character development could have improved this film dramatically.
The Blu-ray Disc:
I've got to hand it to them, Magnolia really popped out a winner with this 1.85:1 VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer. The colors are vibrant and pop right off the screen. The image is alive with detail (which, in the case of the CGI monster, isn't always to its benefit). While I've been seeing a lot of high quality new release discs on both formats, this one is right up there with them. The only issue I have is that a slight amount of edge enhancement seems to have been applied during certain scenes. It's not enough to destroy the image entirely, but it's noticeable enough for me to deduct a half-star from its score.
Alright, are you ready for this? The Host on Blu-ray comes with six audio tracks (seven if you count the commentary). The major factor here is the inclusion of a Korean 5.1 uncompressed PCM track, providing lossless sound, and a companion PCM track of the English dub. Neither the HD DVD nor the DVD versions of The Host offer any kind of lossless sound, marking what I consider to be a significant difference in the formats. The Korean PCM 5.1 track is very lively and detailed, with plenty of directional effects and excellent atmosphere. Also offered are Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 tracks that still get the job done, but without quite the kick of the PCM. The English dub versions (which comes in all three flavors as well) sounds about equal from a purely sonic perspective. Whether or not you'd like to hear the actors overdubbed is another story.
The Host on Blu-ray comes with all of the supplements available on the HD DVD edition. That is to say, it's missing several extras available on the standard DVD version. Perhaps the second PCM track took up too much space. Either way, their absence here is obnoxious, as the remainder of the supplements are all in standard definition and I'd much rather have the full complement of features instead of a lossless dub track.
- Deleted Scenes: Mostly extensions to scenes currently in the movie, these all deserved to be excised.
- Commentary by Director Joon-ho Bong : Joon-ho Bong and British film critic Tony Rayns discuss many of the aspects of The Host. Rayns helps guide the discussion and gives a nice outsider's perspective on things. Bong talks about many of the choices he made for the movie, which helped me understand why he did some things, but did not make me appreciate the end result more.
- Making of The Host: Split up into four smaller featurettes that take a look at the genesis of the project and the physical shooting. The in-camera effects are looked at, as are the sewers used in the movie. At the end we get several storyboards.
- The Creature: By far the most interesting group of supplements, this all about the creature. From designs to animatronics used on set to the digital animation, it's all here and you'll want to take a look.
- The Cast: A few interviews with the cast along with footage of them preparing for their roles. A little too brief to be substantial.
- The Gag Reel: There are some admittedly funny gags involving CGI and the creature here, and then less funny moments of the cast cracking each other up.
- Korean Trailer: There is a high def trailer floating around, but this isn't it.
- Blu-ray Trailers: The only high definition extras are trailers for Magnolia's recent releases, The Lost City, District B-13, and The World's Fastest Indian.
There are some good ideas floating around inside The Host. Unfortunately, they're too often buried beneath layers of bad comedy, poor writing, and meaningless political and social overtones. The best sequences are so good that they deserve to be seen, but they are few and far between. If you're trying to choose between the Blu-ray and HD DVD versions of the film, the inclusion of Korean and English lossless PCM tracks should point you in the direction of the Blu-ray. It also helps that the disc has a stellar image. To its detriment, the Blu-ray does not contain all of the special features available on the standard DVD set, so if you're a big fan of the movie, you'll want this disc for the picture and sound, and the standard DVD for the extras. Rent It.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.