Thursday, September 07, 2006

Review - The Host (Gwoemul)

There have been so many monster movies down the years, so many films in which a horribly mutated creature emerges from the depths to wreak havoc upon a terrified city, that viewers familiar with the genre may feel that it has nothing more to offer, no more surprises up its sleeve. Well, prepare to be surprised.

Korean writer/director Joon-ho Bong established himself as a talent to watch with his masterful 2003 film
Memories of Murder, and while The Host never looks likely to reach that astronomical benchmark, it’s still a rip-roaring tale which is packs more imagination, flair and effects-driven entertainment into its two hours than any of this year’s mediocre Hollywood blockbusters could manage. No matter how many monster movies you may have seen, you’ve never seen anything quite like The Host.

As ever, it’s the careless use of toxic material which acts as the catalyst for the subsequent mayhem. Six years ago, on a US army base somewhere in Korea, a feckless American soldier orders a hapless lab assistant to dump a huge amount of chemicals which have long passed their sell-by date. His nervous flunky offers a small word of caution against releasing such a dose of toxic waste into the Han river, but his superior doesn’t seem to care. It’s a big river, he reasons, what harm could it possibly do?

Six years on, the residents of Seoul are about to suffer the consequences. In particular, the dysfunctional Park family will be at the centre of the ensuing chaos; and what a motley crew they are. Patriarch Hie-bong (Hie-bong Byeon ) runs a small snack bar on the riverbank along with his layabout son Kang-du (Kang-ho Song), but Kang-du isn’t much help to his father as he spends most of his time asleep or eating. He’s also something of a disappointment to his 14 year-old daughter Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko), and she’s further embarrassed by the drunken behaviour of her unemployed uncle Nam-il (Hae-il Park). At least she can take solace in the success of her aunt Nam-ju (Du-na Bae), though. She’s a talented archer who is on the brink of glory; what a shame her unfortunate habit of hesitating just before taking her shot keeps hampering her chances.

Odd as they are, The Parks are ultimately a family just like many others, and their life is pretty humdrum. This day is different, however, and Kang-du’s attention is drawn away from his daily duties by a large crowd congregating by the edge of the river. They’re all transfixed by a huge, unidentifiable blob which is hanging from the bridge, a blob which then unfurls and sinks into the water. Nobody has a clue as to what it might be. They’re about to find out.

Bong’s first unveiling of his terrifying creature is a joy. He gives us a slow, deliberate build-up, and focuses his camera on the Kang-du’s bemused expression for a few beats before exposing the lizard-like beast rampaging towards him, swallowing a number of people along the way. This long sequence depicting the creature’s first assault on the city is a
tour de force. Bong keeps his camera on the move, capturing both the spectacular carnage caused by this strange mutant and expressing a genuine sense of panic. Within these scenes he displays all of his filmmaking virtuosity; plunging his characters into a number of inventive life-and-death situations, and ensuring his direction remains fresh and surprising throughout. The CGI effects used to bring the monster to life are stunning, and Bong integrates them so seamlessly into the action that you’d swear the beast himself was actually roaring its way around the set.

During this horrific spree the monster snatches up Hyun-seo and then races away to its lair in the sewers, leaving the rest of her family inconsolable. Kang-du gets the majority of the blame for failing to protect her, but a glimmer of hope appears when Hyun-seo manages to make a phone call from her underground location. It seems she is among a small group of people that the monster is keeping alive, and her family immediately launch a rescue attempt. It won’t be easy though, as the Parks are being hunted down by government forces who believe they’re carrying a disease spread by the monster.

From here, T
he Host develops into a staggeringly enjoyable roller-coaster ride, and while many may see this as a major departure for Bong after Memories of Murder, it still showcases so many of the aspects which made that film such a memorable experience. The characters are once again lovingly drawn and perfectly played, with Song as good as ever in the lead and the supporting players - particularly 14 year-old Ko - each giving vivid and believable turns. Bong creates a number of fantastic set-pieces and fills the film with striking imagery, but as in Memories of Murder it’s the director’s handling of the fluctuating tone which lives longest in the memory.

Memories of Murder may have been every bit as grisly and violent as you would expect a serial killer film to be, but it was also the funniest film I saw that year; and its ability to shock you in one scene while making you laugh out loud in the next was incredible. Bong manipulated the constantly shifting mood with ridiculous assurance, making us laugh and flinch - sometimes within the same scene - without ever letting the transitions feel forced or abrupt. The Host also benefits from this strange and beguiling blend of laughter and drama, and Bong again changes gears repeatedly as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. In one standout scene, the director observes a family traumatised by the loss of a loved one, and the scene gradually grows funnier as the family grow ever more grief-stricken. A scene like this takes such delicacy, bravery and sheer chutzpah - how does Bong get away with it every single time?

There are a few flaws in
The Host which cause it to fall short of the standard Bong has set for himself. It's is a little more uneven and nowhere near as resonant as Memories of Murder, and there is a certain point in the film’s second half where the narrative threatens to spin out of control. Bong pushes all of his characters down wildly different paths and he nearly loses his grip on the various threads, leading to a middle section of the film which feels a tad bloated. Nevertheless, he rides over the bumps in the road without too much lasting damage and he successfully brings everything together for a rousing climax.

Joon-ho Bong elevated the serial killer film to new heights with
Memories of Murder, and once again his filmmaking panache and unique sensibility have managed to subvert and revitalise a tired old genre. Bong continues to spring surprises every step of the way, avoiding all the clich├ęs you expect to find in an Asian monster movie, and he has produced yet another fabulous picture. There really is nothing to touch The Host for sheer entertainment value in the cinemas right now - don’t miss this terrific monster mash.