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The Host is a monster movie of epic proportions, at least as far as story and character are concerned. Skirting the line between environmental warning, bio-disaster flick, government conspiracy picture and family film, this effort from Korean director Joon-ho Bong accomplishes most of what it sets out to do. A special two-disc collector's edition has just been released, full of more bonus material than the average viewer will know what to do with: dozens of "making of" documentaries, a director's commentary, gag reel, and interviews with cast and crew are included.
The film itself is the real highlight, of course. The story begins with a couple of dubious doctors working at a military base or lab of some sort, who decide to dump some unwanted chemicals down the drain. Flash-forward a few years, and two fishermen discover a tiny baby monster, which quickly slips away from them. Skip ahead a few more years, and one sunny afternoon, the monster emerges from the Han River to wreak havoc and destruction upon the sunbathing public of Seoul. At the heart of the story lies the Park family - not exactly the typical nuclear family of most Hollywood monster movies. This one is comprised of a pre-teen schoolgirl, her deadbeat father, her grandfather, and her aunt and uncle. When the monster attacks, Gang-du, the dad, accidentally loses his daughter, Hyun-seo. While she is whisked off to the sewer system by the creature, the government immediately quarantines all those who had any contact with it, and it turns out that they are more concerned with controlling the populace than with hunting down and destroying this threat to the public. The virus that the government, backed by the U.S. military, claims that anyone who has made contact with the monster now has, may or may not be real, but officials are more than willing buy contracts on "agent yellow," a lethal chemical which is supposed to control the virus's spread. The Park family realizes Hyun-seo is still alive after getting a cell phone call from her, and sets out to save her from the sewers, no matter the obstacles in their way.
Moments of humor are often juxtaposed sharply against some of the more horrifying images in the film, which works to its benefit. As the Park family waits in a quarantine center, they wail, moan, and writhe to comic effect in front of a makeshift memorial to the monster's victims, as they mourn Hyun-seo's loss. The scene is played as ridiculous, almost slapstick comedy, as are the bumbling efforts of officials trying to control the situation. This creates an effective tension though, particularly when contrasted against scenes in which people are hunted by the monster, scenes which are clearly influenced by films like Aliens. The creature effects of The Host are mostly good, especially when the serpentine beast is seen swimming just below the surface of the water. At times it's obvious that some type of rear projection or green screen is being used, but it doesn't detract from the film at all.
It's hard not to think of movies like Godzilla when watching a monster movie set in Asia, but the filmmakers seemed to be aware of this and intentionally set out to make a smarter movie and minus the stereotypes of films like that. And the monster in this movie is often more a device than the focus of the film. As Bong states in an interview, he wanted to make a film that really centered on family more than a gory horror picture. And this is a family that tries as hard as it can to stay together and to rescue its own, even as anonymous men in HAZMAT suits try to detain them. There are definitely elements of our current age of terror alerts and the ominous threat of bio-warfare that one can't help but reference. When a character hopelessly says that whatever the government says, we have to accept, it brings our color-coded alert levels and press conferences based on "gut feelings" of possible attacks to mind. Near the end of the film, the people seem to have had enough and stage a demonstration against the use of agent yellow, setting up the final showdown with the monster.
Though there are some hokey moments, and at 120 minutes The Host drags in certain places, this Korean film is one of the better foreign films to be released this year. Asian cinema often rules the horror circuit, as some of the most extreme films of the genre come from the region. But this is a different brand of monster movie, one that dares to really focus on plot and character, while not sacrificing creature effects in the process. SEE ALSO: www.hostmovie.com
Jonah Flicker writes, lives, drinks, eats, and consumes music in New York, via Los Angeles. He once received a fortune in a fortune cookie that stated the following: "Soon, a visitor shall delight you." He's still waiting.
See other articles by Jonah Flicker.
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