Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 05, 2006 1:43 pm 
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Populist, politically correct wild fun

Leave it to the lively Korean film industry to produce a monster movie with a populist heart and political overtones that’s great fun to watch. The fact that Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (whose Korean title Gwoemul just means “Monster”) has been the biggest box office success in Korean history isn't just due to its high entertainment value but also to its direct appeal to the ordinary guy. Its heros are heroes in spite of themselves.

The premise is a true event: Americans dumped a bunch of toxic waste into the Han river that runs through Seoul and a scandal resulted. In the movie, a dictatorial and nutty American military chemist orders his Korean subordinate to pour gallons and gallons of formaldehyde down the dram because the bottles it was in had gotten dusty. The drain feeds directly into the Han river. The result is a huge mutant fish-lizard creature that goes on a rampage and crushes and eats people, or just catches them up in its tail and dumps them in a sewage vault.

In Fifties sci-fi/horror flicks the monster was often a stand-in for the red menace. Here it’s a warning of eco-disaster and an offshoot of mindless globalization, unbridled American hegemony. Bong studied sociology at university before graduating from the Film Academy. He treats popular subjects in fresh, human-centered ways, and is a master of chaos, which makes him good at orchestrating an actioner like The Host and keeping it from turning into a special-effects fiesta. The effects are state-of-the-art, but restrained. The SFX boys wanted to do many monsters, but one was all Bong needed, and it's not enormous, but small enough to get hidden behind a sewage wall.

This never ceases to be an old-fashioned scary sci-fi genre movie with loud bangs and a creature with a terrifying mouth. But uppdated though the techniques are, it maintains an appealing silliness. The heart of Bong’s movie is its human side. The story focuses on a poor working class family, two generations of men without women, a cute little girl and her aunt who’s a champion with the bow and arrow. The family live in a little food shack on the edge of the big river. The Host has a number of moments that speak vividly of what it’s like to be poor and to be hungry. Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) is a slightly narcoleptic dad. His father, one of several casualties in this story realistics as to loss, tells the kids he was once smart but was mentally disabled by poor nutrition as a child. When the mutant creature goes on the rampage it runs off with Gang-du’s daughter, Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung). In her sewage dump prison she gets hold of a cell phone and calls Gang-du, who has to escape to hunt for her, because the authorities have imprisoned him and are injecting him with drugs.

In the bedlam that insues the media and the authorities, always acting under the instructions of the Americans, announce that an American officer has died after the first big public encounter with the monster and the autopsy reveals the presence of an unknown virus.

This is a lie, but the powers that be do all they can to perpetuate it. The common people who’re the stars of this movie have to battle the authorities as well as the monster. According to director Bong, the family of Gang-du "must fight to the death against the indifferent, calculating and manipulative Monster known as the world." The way the Americans in The Host use misinformation to manipulate people is seen by the director himself as a reference to Bush’s run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

The monster is the American’s creation. The hysteria is a collaboration between the government and the people.

The Host combines media-savvy political satire, human drama, adventure, and comedy. Bong juggles and interweaves all these elements with frequent injections of renewed excitement as new crises arise, the monster reappears, or the little family escapes from authorities. The monster is grotesque and menacing, moving at breakneck speed and able to flip around and swing by its tail like some kind of ludicrous yet terrifying slimy monkey.

Bong has acknowledged some debt to Shyamalan’s Signs. He’s been called "a Korean Spielberg," but he says that’s a huge compliment to him but not to Speilberg. The film is a creative partnership between Korean technicians and Weta Workshop (King Kong, The Lord of the Rings) and The Orphanage (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Sin City). Anyone who’s seen Park Chong-wook’s revenge films knows that the Korean filmmakers are already in many ways technically at the top of their game; and fans of Hong Sang-soo also know this country can do subtle, ironic relationship movies as well. What’s remarkable about The Host and makes it a good choice by the Film Society of Lincoln center for the NYFF is that it’s slam-bang popular filmmaking, but it knows how to make the human action real and specific in ways the Americans have lost touch with. Bong cares about the little man. He is not, like Shyamalan, looking for a spiritual message or just striving to be world famous. Because he’s a populist, he wants to use mainstream genre to talk about working class strivings and problems. The family in The Host is not unlike the people in Kurosawa’s Do-des-ka-den, but this isn’t a downbeat, alienated tale; it's mass entertainment liberally laced with thrills and chills.

Bong has used several of the stars of Park Chan-wook’s revenge movies, Song Kang-ho (whom he has used before) and Bae Doon-na. And the acting is what ultimately makes this a winner. But everything works, and works well and entertainingly.

Distributed in America by Magnolia Pictures, The Host is destined for limited U.S. release in early 2007.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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