Published at: March 9, 2007, 10:02 a.m. CST by merrick
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
During last year's Chicago Film Festival in October, there were two showings of a movie that may single-handedly usher in a new kind of scary movie on our shores (assuming anybody goes to see it). At its core, South Korea's THE HOST is a monster movie, but the secret of why it succeeds only partially has to do with its hideously realized creature. In truth, THE HOST is a heartfelt and funny family drama disguised as a monster movie epic, and it is these distinctly human qualities that make the icky stuff so cool. Not to underplay the fantastic scares this film delivers, but it wouldn't mean as much to us if we didn't care so much about the people this mutant creature was terrorizing.
Director and co-writer Joon-ho Bong (who also directed the powerful serial killer procedural MEMORIES OF MURDER) shows us he's not just comfortable in any genre; he's downright formidable. The film opens in classic monster movie fashion with an evil autopsy doctor ordering his underling to pour gallons of toxic formaldehyde down the drain and into the water supply somewhere near Seoul, South Korea. The hilarious twist here is that the doctor is American, and the setting for this event is a U.S. military base in South Korea. You can always count on the Americans to screw things up. But by making this distinction, Bong is leaving many elements of his film open to interpretation. The chemicals in the water result in the creation of a giant monster that looks like a mutated fish or lizard or something that can breathe underwater and on land. And while the director never explicitly says so, this monster could represent all sorts of things, the same way Godzilla was delivered unto the world as a warning about the harmful effects of atomic weapons. Is THE HOST's creature meant to represent America or the Iraq War or capitalism or tourists or corporate greed? Ultimately, it doesn't matter, but it's still fun to think about and it adds some socio-political weight to the film.
The real stars of the film are the three generations of the Park family, a fractured group living in Seoul who band together when the creature takes the youngest member of the family and stores her away for future eating. The first clue that THE HOST is unlike so many other monster movies is that the creature appears right at the beginning of the film, in broad daylight. Bong is not interested in hiding his creation, or parceling stolen looks until a big reveal near the end. Nope, he wants us to become overly familiar with his freakish being, every slimy scale, fin, tail and other unidentifiable appendages. If anything, we see less and less of the monster as the film goes on and as the family's story to find the little girl takes over. The suspense comes more from anticipating the creature's return. But when it attacks, it is quick and ferocious. Although the monster does eat humans, THE HOST is largely a bloodless affair, with a few choice exceptions.
Even when the monster is on screen, it's not always in the foreground. Often, large groups of people are running from it, and while the fleeing masses are in the foreground, you catch glimpses of the beast as it closes in on them from behind. The effect is awesome and terrifying. As easy as it would be to draw parallels between THE HOST and Japanese horror flicks like GODZILLA, the comparisons don't quite hold up. First of all, there's no Raymond Burr. But more importantly, the emphasis on the dysfunctional family attempting to mend its differences and become closer makes this film more akin to JAWS or SIGNS or POLTERGEIST. I don't draw these comparisons lightly; I firmly believe that THE HOST stands right there with some of the great monster offerings in recent years, and, yes, I cringe at the thought of a possible remake from Universal. But if any studio has a strong history with monster movies, it's that one. Let's hope they don't forget what makes this movie stand out from the pack. Don't clutter the remake with attractive teens or hunky heroes. The original has neither. A big part of what makes THE HOST so perfect is the anti-hero nature of all of the leads. This is one of those films you'll probably have to seek out, folks, but it will be well worth your effort.