Friday, March 09, 2007

The Host / (Gwoemul) - Movie Review

Gwoemul / (The Host) 2006

When Bong Joon-ho’s “The Host” premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, it sent that infamously jaded audience out into the night screaming accolades. The advance word of mouth has been stellar, with many comparing this modern day monster flick to the seminal seventies shocker “Jaws”. Well, one can hardly accuse the movie marketing gurus of underselling. Thankfully, “The Host” turns out to be a delightfully thoughtful and well executed entry into the movie monster genre. And while comparisons with “Jaws” may at first seem hyperbolic, we found enough parallels to begrudgingly agree.

For both films dealing with underwater behemoths terrorizing the local populace knew one vital piece of information in selling a great monster movie. Focus on the characters, earn our sympathies and then let them face their greatest fears in the guise of the otherworldly creature and let ‘er rip! The premise for “The Host” is beautifully laid out in the opening scene which does the unthinkable; it introduces the monster in the first few minutes of the movie.

We meet the Park family, a disjointed band consisting of an elderly riverside kiosk owner, his seemingly ne’er-do-well son, his studious and feisty granddaughter and his daughter who turns out to be an Olympic level archer. The grandfather gripes about his son’s narcoleptic tendencies and slacker status while he busies himself with doling out snacks and toys to the residents of Seoul who choose the park by the river Han to sunbathe and relax.

Unbeknownst to them, a sin against nature has occurred months earlier when an American military pathologist orders a Korean subordinate to dump a small warehouse full of toxic formaldehyde down the drain into the Han water system. Before you can cry “It Came from Beneath the Sea”, the chemicals have done their awful duty and produced an aberration in the form of a mutated water creature that is equally at home lumbering across the land to ingest helpless bystanders.

The two worlds intersect as the Park family find themselves in the center of the creature’s first foray onto land. It rampages across the riverside denizens, squashing several, ripping others apart and finally and horribly for the Parks, runs away with their youngest held captive in its slimy appendages. The groundwork has been laid for a roaring good yarn!

While a shocked populace struggles to understand what could have birthed such a creature, the Parks discover a new sense of family in their outpouring of grief. We knew we were in for a good time at the movies, with the hysterical antics of the grieving scene. A makeshift shrine to the lost victims is the stage for a ridiculous reunion of sorts between the Park siblings, now joined by their booze guzzling brother as they claw the turf and howl at the injustice of their beloved daughter / niece / granddaughter perishing in such a horrendous manner.

Their grief quickly turns to fear as they and others are carted off to a segregated facility by the military who is attempting to squelch any spread of an alleged contagion brought upon by the mysterious creature. While in medical seclusion, the unthinkable happens. The slacker dad receives a cell phone call, from his missing child! It turns out that the creature has opted to save her for a snack and has unceremoniously dumped her in a large sewer underneath Seoul’s winding streets.

The race is on to rescue young Hyun-seo, before she is gobbled up by the foul beast. But by now you must be thinking, what is so special about “The Host”? Well, we’ll tell you dear readers. “The Host” is so far above your typical monster flick in its complete dedication to making us care for a family already in tatters prior to disaster striking. By layering their various storylines into the search for their youngest, Bong has dared to make a horror flick with a heart and he pulls it off masterfully.

For while the various individual storylines are none too surprising: we’ve seen the “dysfunctional family” scenario one too many times, he does show quite the knack for incorporating them into his amazing set pieces. From the creatures first attack, the focus is aimed low at the terrorized bystanders and their flight to escape the monster’s various drooling mouths. The camera sits tightly on the foreground, capturing the young Hyun-seo’s disbelieving panic as she is lifted high into the air and taken away to her doom.

Later, when she is forced to fend for herself in her sewer / cage, she will find amazing levels of inner strength and courage to help maneuver her escape attempts. Attempts that are made all the more necessary once she finds herself in charge of a similarly abandoned child that the creature has dumped alongside her. Their storyline forms the heart of the film’s various threads, which leads up to a pay-off that is equally tense and surprising.

This is where “The Host” really shines. In taking the initial set-up of a brave and hearty crew standing up against the big bad, and turning it on its ear slightly by allowing the family’s relationships to drive the action. We care about the slacker father finding his strength and resolve to rescue his child. We think we may know how the aunt’s archery skills will come into play, but surprises abound in this clever screenplay.

And the direction! Sublime in it’s ability to focus equally on the horrific and the everyday. Several set pieces are absolutely stunning in their composition and execution. The grandfather’s bravery in their darkest hour. The family's brief respite amidst their harrowing journey wherein they allow themselves a moment of blisfull "wish fulfillment". The granddaughter’s anxiety causing attempt at escaping her deathtrap and the final showdown between the citizens of Seoul and the monster.

The Host” succeeds so beautifully because it never speaks down to its audience. It assumes a level of intelligence and sophistication that is so rare in moviemaking in general, much less for a monster from the deep flick. Ultimately, we realized that hyperbole aside, this may indeed be the most solidly directed monster flick since that fateful summer of ’75. “The Host” has already taken South Korea by storm, being crowned its all time king of the box office. One hopes that in this fallow period of movie releases, it can drum up a few dollars more stateside. Go ahead, take a dip into the surprisingly smart and entertaining cinematic waters of “The Host”. You’ll be glad you did. Bless you all!

Directed by Joon-ho Bong
Written by Chul-hyun Baek, Joon-ho Bong and Jun-won Ha

Song Kang-ho as Gang-Du Park
Hie-bong Byeon as Hie-bong Park
Hae-il Park as Nam-il Park
Bae Du-na as Nam-Joo Park
Ah-sung Ko as Hyun-seo Park
David Joseph Anselmo as Donald
Paul Lazar as Military Doctor
Brian Lee as Young Korean Doctor
Scott Wilson as the Military Pathologist

Cinematography by Hyung-ku Kim
Film Editing by Seon Min Kim
Production Design by Seong-hie Ryu
Costume Design by Sang-kyung Cho
Original Music by Byung-woo Lee
Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Rafferty
Visual Effects and Animation by The Orphanage



Post a Comment

<< Home