Loving: The Host (Gwoemul)

The Host is an exciting, funny, intelligent, subversive and at times scary Korean monster movie. I sat in awe at some points and happily place it somewhere in my all-time personal top 10. (Which I really keep meaning to get around putting together). I'm pretty keen now to check out other work from its director Joon-ho Bong as well.

It embraces its role as a monster flick, acknowledging the rules of the game and playing by them most of the time but bending or outright flouting them at others. It also crosses genres with such grace that calling it a monster movie seems to diminish it unfairly. (Would you call Jaws a monster movie for example?)(The direct translation from Korean is apparently The Monster as well, which I think works just fine as a title)

I'm quite loathe to reveal too much of the story as there are elements that keep you hanging on in suspense to the very end and I personally hate to go to a film knowing too much about what is going to happen.

In short, a big T-Rex sized razor toothed mutated fish/eel/axolotl looking beasty is spawned in the Han River in Seoul as a result of a U.S military scientist ordering his Korean underling to pour hundreds of bottles of old formaldehyde down the drain.

This part - not the monster obviously, well as far as we know - is based on a true story from 2000 which outraged South Korea, particularly given that the US never gave the guy up for trial.

The action revolves around a slightly slow witted but decent man Gang-du, who runs a food stand on the banks of the river with his daughter Hyun-seo and father Hie-bong. Rounding out the Park family are national archery champion Nam-joo and drunken unemployed grad Nam-il.

Naturally enough, the monster first appears not far from the Park family food stand and Gang-du is soon in the thick of it as the monster rampages through the picturesque riverside area gobbling down locals left right and centre. Well, some get gobbled down and some are carried off to the monsters lair for later. No surprises that this sets up the motivation of the Park family for the rest of the film.

This scene for me really highlighted that we were getting into something special. The opening scenes were stylish and moved well but this is where things really got moving, for a few reasons.

You see the whole monster, in broad daylight, early in the film. There's no lurking in the dark, only revealing a shadow here, a scary extreme closeup of a fanged mouth there, trying to build the horror of a beast that ultimately isn't that flash anyway. There are no disposable individuals getting picked off one by one while an innocent town moseys along in blissful ignorance. Right from the outset, it's on.

Now there are any number of reasons why monster movies have conventionally taken this approach but at the top of the list, you always suspect that it's because the monsters just don't look that impressive. This one though, brought to life by the good folks at Peter Jackson's Weta, is the goods. It looks credible and seems to actually exist in its environment, it seems to have weight.

From here the story moves on, still paying respect to the genre but maintaining its own approach. You get the military taking over the area, the plucky family on the run from the government, the whole "I know something really important but noone believes me" thing, a little trapped in hospital by the man horror, it's all there and it's all gold.

The film maker also has a clear appreciation of these conventions - there's a couple of beautiful moments in the mass memorial service / evacuation hall that sum this up. (And incidentally, how often do you see the whole grieving mourners thing when a monster rampages through a city?). A bio-hazard suited official enters the hall and is met with a hail of demands to know what is going on. He says that rather than tell them, he's sure there is a report on the tv news which will explain everything (a hallmark of lazy story telling in movies) and flicks it on. Nothing, it's all just standard programming. Oh, I guess the news isn't on yet is his response.

The dynamics of the family are what really make this film work - it just feels real and right and this strong emotional core props up the rest of the story. Everyone seems to act credibly as well - there are no "why would you do that" moments at all.

I guess it's hard to judge the acting when something is in another language - although they say that only 7% of communication is verbal anyway but again it all seemed strong and I felt connected with all of the main characters.

I took a quick squiz at some of the posts on IMDB about this film afterwards and it was interesting to see that some people felt that it got "all Michael Moore" and political. Sure, the Americans (and to an extent the Korean government as well) were the bad guys to some extent (concocting a virus/contagion threat to cover up for the formaldehyde thing) but I didn't see anything different in this to that which film makers in this genre have been doing for the last 30 years or more.

Perhaps it's taken more personally when it's not American film makers using the US Government as the bad guy.

Anyway, I'll spare you my fanboy-esque ranting for now and just urge you to get out and see it if you're not averse to this kind of thing. As far as gore goes, there's nothing overly confronting - a fantastic scene involving lots of bones and some surgical ickyness but there's almost no blood and/or guts in this at all when I think about it.

I should just mention the dynamism of this film as well - it has any number of moments that take you from genuine hilarity to biting social comment to worrying about the characters and back again in the space of moments, all happeningly seamlessly.

Here's the trailer - it's the U.K version and I don't think it does it justice and it's interesting that they spin it so heavily for it's scary/horror elements when it is a much more well-rounded thing. Focus groups I guess.

Here's the Korean one by way of comparison - it lacks subtitles but really does seem to capture the spirit and drama of the film much better