Wednesday, January 04, 2012

"YOU ARE WHAT IT EATS": That's the blurb on the Swedish DVD for the surprisingly terrific South Korean monster movie THE HOST (2006). THE HOST was the highest-grossing Korean film of all time so naturally most insular Americans have probably never heard of it. But for the uninitiated, this is a rarity: a good old-fashioned monster on the loose movie which also excells in both post-modern snarky humour AND deftly drawn characterisations amongst disfunctional family dynamics. Basically, it's one great ride. The story opens in a morgue where the nasty-piece-of-work American doctor running the places tells his South Korean assistant that if there's one thing he can't stand, it's dust. And ALL the bottles of formaldehyde et. al. are covered in dust. So he haughtily commands his assistant to dump them ALL down the drain. The assistant meekly protests that the toxic chemicals will go into the Han River and pollute it. "The Han River is very broad", says the patronizing US doc, "and I need you to think. . .broadly," He commands his assistant to pour every last drop down the drain; which he obediently does. A really nice touch for movie buffs is the casting of Scott Wilson as the obnoxious morgue doctor; Wilson, of course, starred in THE NINTH CONFIGURATION and is now currently appearing in the AMC zombie series "THE WALKING DEAD". I am a huge fan of Scott Wilson and this casting was boocoo appreciated, I can assure you. Switch to later when two fishermen standing in the Han River notice a strange, mutant-type tentacly creature swimming by. One fisherman catches it in his cup but drops it and it swims away. If this was a US film, it would've been a redneck fisherman saying "Hmm, t'ain't never seed nuthin' the likes o'that 'round these here parts, Jebediah". Shades of monsters to come! But it's time for a time shift to the Park family.
As wacky families go, the Parks are almost up there with Takashi Miike's Katakuris! Sixty-something Park Hie-bong (Hie-bong Byeon) runs a snack/convenience store right off the Han River along with his 3 adult children and one granddaughter. Forty something Park Gang-Du (Kang-ho Song) has dyed blonde hair and has the habit of falling asleep at the most inopportune moments due (apparently) to his lack of protein as a child. (You just have to run with the bizarre, surreal nature of these plot points because they're done knowingly for comic affect). Gang-Du's wife "popped out" their daughter Park Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko) and promptly abandoned them both. The other two adult children are Olympic archery medalist daughter Park Nam-Joo (Doona Bae) and grumbling, unemployed son Park Nam-il (Hae-il Park). One bright and sunny day, pedestrians along the Han River notice a strange, gloopy mass hanging from the bottom of a suspension bridge. At first the people assume the sludgy mass is something from an oil spill but when the object falls into the river and seems to swim towards them underwater, they assume it's some sort of sea creature. As the crowd throws soda cans and snacks at the underwater mass, the creature swims away. However, moments later a crowd in the distance begins running towards them pursued by a large dark object about the size of an elephant or rhino. As they get closer, the bystanders can see it's some sort of monster which closes the distance and starts munching on anyone unlucky enough to get in its path. Blonde-haired slacker Gang-Du is among the crowd and alternately runs away and helps a US G.I. belt the creature with a heavy street sign. Much carnage and mayhem (and murdered bystanders) ensues in a truly terrific action scene. Suddenly, Gang-Du notices his daughter Hyun-seo is outside in the crowd. He grabs her hand and runs with her but they fall down in the crowd. Regaining his feet, he grabs her hand again and runs . . . but when he turns his head he sees he has grabbed some OTHER little girl's hand. He looks back in the crowd and sees his daughter standing there with the hideous monster bounding up behind her. Before he can act, a long serpent-like tail whips around and snatches the little girl up. The monster then plunges into the river and swims to the opposite bank where it pops Hyun-seo into its mouth and then swims away. As said previously, this is one heck of a scene. As the community (including the Parks) mourn their dead at a public memorial, the Korean police and military in hazmat suits arrive and inform everyone that the monster was carrying a deadly virus. Anyone who came in direct contact with the beast is taken away to a government quarantine site -- this includes the Park family. While in the hospital ward, Gang-Du receives a telephone call. The signal is faint and the call is full of static -- but the voice of a young girl says she's his daughter Hyun-seo and that she's somewhere deep. . .and dark. Is the girl still alive? None of the authorities believe him. The rest of the film deals with the Parks frantic efforts to find where Hyun-seo was calling from and rescue her; all this while on the run from the authorites.
Director Joon-ho Bong has made a cracking monster yarn in the best tradition of Godzilla and every Ray Harryhausen dynamotion flick ever made. Of course, in this day and age, the monster is CGI'd and it must be admitted that the only a microbe less believeable than any Hollywood-made computer graphics. It's a completely effective job in almost every respect and is actually better computer graphics than I've seen in one or two so-called Hollywood blockbusters. Like Godzilla movies which slipped in warnings about the dangers of atomic radiation, THE HOST slips in the very green message concerning the pitfalls of polluting the environment; if you don't dispose of your toxic products properly you might get giant man-eating fish monsters! So watch yourself! Once again it should be noted that the director manages to combine scary monster action with sometimes surreal/sometimes wacky humour and genuinely touching emotional moments. This is no horror comedy but the laughs are perfectly integrated into the film without ruining the other aspects of scares and drama. It just so happens that right before I watched THE HOST, I watched the original JURASSIC PARK for the first time. Of the two, I would have to say I enjoyed THE HOST much, much more. JURASSIC PARK was . . .well, OK I guess but I truly don't see what all the fuss was about. Granted, the film is almost 20 years old now and perhaps you had to be there. But I found THE HOST to be much more involving and enjoyable a film. I can see why it was so successful in South Korea; it was tailor-made to put bums in the seats and sell sell SELL that popcorn. But THE HOST is much more than just that; it is also a surprisingly rich film that truly has surprises around every corner where what often happens truly IS unexpected. Apparently (but not surprisingly) a sequel was made in 2011 (which I haven't seen) which sadly does not see the return of director Joon-ho Bong. This is a pity because i think a great deal of the first film's success can be placed at the director's doorstep. The good news is that THE HOST is available to rent from whatever movie service to which you might belong so I heartily recommend you seek it out.

5 comments:

wellyousaythat© said...

terrific, subversive and fun; what more could you want?

Cerpts said...

Well, I could go for some Australian licorice. But as for the movie, I'd have to agree with you!

Buffalo Chuck said...

Great fun movie. I am so intolerant of monster movies without monsters - the 102 seconds of monster-footage in CLOVERFIELD's 85 other minutes was offensive. "Teen Angst Soap Operas among 30-Somethings" pretending to be monster films.

Monster films should have Godzilla rising up out a bay, kicking the bejeepers out of a city for 20 minutes, then swimming away for 5 minutes of destructive landscape footage, then the monster rising up on City #2's bay, for another 20-25 minutes of bejeepers kicking. Then swims away to City #3. The perfect 90-minute monster film. The only dialog: "Argh! Noo, nooo...." No bleepin' character development... if they need comic relief, hire the Three Stooges.

Cerpts said...

From your words to God(zilla)'s ears!

ernest said...

Watch out for CHASER - another winner from SK. Caught it on the BBC and ordered it before I'd even seen the end.