Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Host (Gwoemul)

The Host (Gwoemul)
Director: Bong Joon-hu
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Go Ah-sung, Byeon Hee-bong

I am continually wary of modern horror films, because modern horror films delight in showing ridiculous amounts of gore.  You know; torture porn.  And this is not for me.  Logically, I know they are not all that way, but I’m not always logical, so I tend to steer clear as much as possible from these films.  But 1001 Movies can be a great motivator, so I finally said “okay” to The Host, a modern Korean monster horror picture.  That’s also a comedy.  And a political satire.  Amongst other things.  And I quickly realized that The Host is nothing like many other modern horror films.  

The story opens with what can only be described as a psychotic American military doctor ordering his Korean assistant to pour hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde down the drain to eventually empty into the Han River.  Naturally, six years later, a horrifying mutant monster emerges (keeping my mouth shut about the chemical reactivity and mutagenic capacity of methanaldehyde here), but not before we are introduced to Gang-du (Song), a slacker of a grownup who can barely keep his eyes open while manning his father’s (Byeon) tiny convenience store.  When the monster cuts a wide swath of destruction, Gang-du tries to fight it off, but instead manages to lose his only daughter, Hyun-seo (Go), to the monster in the process.  Initially thinking her dead, Gang-du, his father, and his brother and sister later believe that Hyun-seo is still alive in the sewers, which prompts them to come together to fight off the monster and the military, who fervently believe Gang-du has been infected with a virus. 

There are several facets to The Host that make it palatable to me, someone who actively tries to avoid this sort of monster horror film.  The first one, and one that goes quite a long way, is the broad streak of black comedy painted up and down and sideways throughout The Host.  I laughed, and actually laughed out loud in the room by myself, several times.  The yellow-clad government agent who makes his entrance by falling down, the fact that the stupidly brave American is one of the first to try to attack the monster (of course!), the unexpected dropping of key objects at certain points, and probably my favorite funny moment, when Hyun-seo’s family believes she’s dead.  Right there, that should not be funny.  A young child is believed dead by her relatives?  Not funny.  But watch the four actors wail ridiculously and flop around on the ground to such utter excess, I laughed out loud, and more than once.  The Host is not comedy first, it definitely primarily identifies as monster horror first and foremost, but it keeps a tone of never being entirely serious that goes a long way to help me keep it down.

This made me laugh.  A lot.

While the comedy helps me make it through the film, what I respect most about The Host is how it plays with preconceived film notions.  First of all, in a monster horror film, one does not have the monster attack in the first ten minutes.  No, the first ten minutes are for establishing “back story.”  “Eff that,” The Host says, “You’re going to have not just a monster attack, but an extended and pretty significant monster attack really early on, and you’ll like it.”  What’s more, this attack takes place in the middle of the afternoon on a beautiful sunlit day.  This is so counterintuitive when it comes to any kind of horror film, let alone monster horror, that it can’t help but be refreshing.  What’s more, The Host really plays fully and freely with the concept of “movie death.”  We have been trained to anticipate certain filmic cues as “that character just died,” when, in fact, we have no actual confirmation of that.  The Host exploits this idea, convincing the audience on more than one occasion that it just killed off a character, only to reveal, twenty minutes later, that nope, you just made the wrong assumption.  The effect this causes is two-fold; one, it keeps you, the viewer, on your toes and much more actively engaged in the film when you realize that “normal movie rules” no longer apply, and two, when a character actually dies, it’s much more poignant.  As a monster horror film, you expect character deaths, accept them as a matter of course.  But by bending the rules, The Host manages to make those deaths much more meaningful.

The Host also has a very clear anti-government message in it.  The government’s handling of the monster attack is nothing short of disastrous, with mixed messages and inadequate workers.  Nothing from government officials actually helps our band of heroes at all, and instead, very quickly, the government becomes antagonistic.  What’s worse, rather than simply trying to get in our heroes’ way, the government starts talking about “the virus.”  Everyone must be contained because of “the virus,” never mind the fact that no one has any symptoms.  There’s nothing like the mass marketing of paranoia and fear to help out martial law.  What’s more, the government fights the monster by unleashing “Agent Orange,” biological warfare that winds up being ineffective.  As to which governments The Host is unimpressed with, it is both its own (South Korea), but also the US.  Seen as both the perpetrator of the original problem and also a major player in the mishandling of public information, the US hardly gets a glowing recommendation in The Host.  As for myself, I saw in The Host not a small amount of allegory to the US invasion of Iraq in 2002 and the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.  Again, not what I expected from a Korean monster horror flick.

And that’s really my biggest takeaway from The Host.  It was not at all what I expected, and it itself actively fights against your expectations as the story develops.  With a focus far more on people than the mutant monster, there is a lot going on here besides a simple horror story.  I can’t say that I would ever want to watch The Host again, because this is not my type of film, but I’m glad I saw it, and I have a great deal of respect for it.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10


  1. Ah, The Host! I actually watched this and quasi-reviewed it on my blog before I even discovered the 1001 Movies Blog Club, and then when I made said discovery and reached out to Squish and asked him if I could join the club, I sent him a link to that old post. So technically The Host was my first review for the Club.

    It's funny that you keep returning to the idea of "this is not what I expected from a horror/monster movie" ... I don't disagree with that at all, but I love horror/monster movies and I'm familiar with the wide variety of shapes and flavors they come in. When I was watching The Host what I kept thinking was "this is not what I expect from ANY movie", largely based on all the things you singled out. Maybe that's just an indication that I need to broaden my cinematic horizons a lot more, but I can't think of many other flicks with so many wild tonal swerves, such unpredictable structure, and just such a freewheeling sense that anything could happen and the whole thing could go in any direction. That's the case when you compare The Host to other works in the horror genre, but also in any other genre. (Again, unless I'm just woefully ignorant of the "multi-toned, wild-whiplash-plot" genre.)

    Anyway, nice review (not that I would expect anything less!)

    - Sunny D

    1. I love people's stories of their first review, or first review for the club, or movies that changed something about them.

      Y'know, I think I have to bump this one up a half point to 8/10. Because of everything you said and after rereading what I wrote. And I really respond well to films that subvert expectations, and jesus christ but The Host subverts expectations A LOT. "Tonal swerves" is a very apt description of this film!

      I didn't discuss the representation of family in The Host, but it's another interesting angle to the film.

      And thanks! :D