Most truly great horror films are a heady brew of different genres. Classics such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien and The Exorcist throw film noir, action, sci-fi and drama into the mix respectively. However, lately no one puts genre hybridity to better use than Korean filmmakers – including director Bong Joon-ho, whose The Host, which screened at the 44th New York Film Festival – encompasses the very best aspects of 1950s’ creature feature, melodrama, comedy and horror.
Already a huge critical and commercial hit in Korea, Bong’s follow up to his acclaimed 2003 cop drama Memories of Murder is based on an actual incident on a U.S. military base in February 2000 in which an American military employee ordered a South Korean subordinate to pour formaldehyde into a sewer system that ran into the Han River. In the film, these toxins cause the birth of a mutant amphibious creature that just happens to like the taste of human flesh. Park Kang-du (Song Kang-ho) works at his father’s food stand serving tourists alongside the river. Kang-du is lazy and sleeps too much but takes good care of his sassy pre-teen daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung). When the monster grabs Hyun-seo, the entire family must work together to find her.
The Host is laugh-out-loud funny when exploring the Park’s quirky family dynamics. The sister is a national archery champion that always releases her arrow a little too late and the brother is a college graduate who participated in the 1980s’ democracy demonstrations and is bitter at being excluded from South Korea’s prosperity. Between comedic moments, the film offers a pointed critique of Korean society itself and the continued U.S. physical and political interference in its national affairs. As the monster preys on people and possibly transmitting a virus to those it comes in contact with, American forces use the chaos as an opportunity to institute martial law. There are timely references to environmental injustice, SARS and biological warfare including “agent orange”.
Although The Host focuses on Kang-du, it is really an ensemble piece about familial love and all the performances are note-perfect. A surprisingly beautiful musical score seamlessly accentuates the action sequences as well as the many touching emotional moments. The CG monster villain is realistic enough until the final scenes of the movie where some of the effects begin to fall apart. However, the monster is certainly effective at getting scares when necessary.
The Host is being released in France and the United Kingdom. Hopefully, American audiences will be also be able to view it in its full glory on the big screen. I laughed, cried, screamed and left thoroughly entertained. At a time when Hollywood is producing uninspired retreads of old horror classics, Korean filmmakers like Bong Joon-ho are crafting smart, original stories that transcend genres.
© 2006 Robyn Citizen. All rights reserved.
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