Friday, January 23, 2015

The Host - Movie Review

The Host
Released 2006
Directed by Bong Joon-ho

In the very first scene of The Host, we watch an American mortician order his reluctant Korean assistant to pour 200 bottles of formaldehyde down the drain, into the river.  This scene makes me sad, not because of what it actually is, but for what it seems to have done to people's perceptions about The Host.  This is another brilliant film I put off watching for far too long, mostly because I listened to what other people were saying about it.  Almost everything that mentions The Host name-drops it for its environmental message.  Which is a HUGE DISSERVICE!  Environmentalism probably fifth or sixth down on the list of 'Things This Movie is About'.  Let us list the others:

The Host is about:
American-Korean relations
The Futility of the Individual when struggling against The System
and then we get to Environmentalism...

Environmentalism and monsters go hand in hand. I get it; I understand. I mean, look at Godzilla.  Not just Godzilla the franchise, but Godzilla the institution.  For much of the 20th century filmmakers have used giant monsters to investigate the public's fears about nuclear weapons, pollution, and even genetic manipulation.  Bearing this in mind, it makes sense that The Host is usually name-dropped due to its heavy-handed environmentalist message.  But, to do this is to really miss so much of what makes The Host, truly, one of the best monster movies of all time.

The story is that a mutant monstrosity lopes up the banks of the Han river that runs through Seoul, causing chaos, death, and destruction.  In the midst of popcorn-munching Godzilla-brand crowd-panic, the monster kidnaps Hyun-seo, the daughter of Park Gang-Doo.  Thinking Hyun-seo is dead, the Park family gathers to grieve when they get whisked away to a decontamination hospital.  While going through the boring and confusing bureaucratic process of decon, Gang-doo gets a phone call from Hyun-seo.  She's still alive!  The monster has deposited her in its lair somewhere in the sewers.  So, what is the family going to do?  BREAK OUT AND RESCUE HER, THAT'S WHAT.

Hyun-seo and Gang-Doo, two of our heroes.
From here, The Host is part rollicking adventure, part hilarious satire, and part heartbreaking tragedy.  And I mean heartbreaking.  It has honestly been years since I've seen something that made me cry so hard and genuinely, only to turn around and make me laugh and cheer.  I did not go into this expecting an emotional roller coaster.  But, that's what I got.  This may explain why The Host is the highest grossing South Korean film of all time.  Just sayin'.  And mind you, this is not how I normally interact with movies.  I'm not swayed by emotional pandering- usually because the characters aren't developed enough for me to care.  But not here... not with The Host.

I wish I could tell you how much I love each and every one of the characters in this movie.  Even bit parts are fascinating.  The Host is one of those movies that I hope has a tiny fandom somewhere because I want to join it and look at fan-art cartoons and nerd-out because I ended up loving these people SO. MUCH.  I hope you will too.  Instead of rambling on and on about them, I suggest you just watch the movie- it'll be more elegant and concise anyways.

Need to go back and count the bullets in this movie.
Aside from how emotionally engaging The Host is, it's also a smart movie.  It refuses to satisfy tropes that make no sense.  Like tropes relating to bullets (*sob*).  Or tropes about how pretty, young girls interact with animals (*double-sob*).  Further, The Host knows how to balance on a knife's edge to make its satire very clearly understood without feeling didactic, or distracting from all the other things it's doing with tone and story.

Oh yeah, and let's not forget there are parts of The Host where you remember you're watching a horror movie.  Notably, the section of the film where American military scientists capture Gang-Doo and attempt to lobotomize him.  He calmly tries to bargain with the doctors in a scene so quietly dreadful it makes the ending of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest look justified in comparison.  Or maybe that's just because I like Gang-Doo at lot more than I do McMurphy.

"No guys, really, this is all a misunderstanding.  I gotta find my daughter."
This is usually the part of the review where I try to warn you so your expectations will not betray you, but to me this is difficult.  There's nothing I dislike about this movie.  The CG holds up beautifully, the pacing is spot on, the themes are up my alley.  Even that opening scene that caused so many to file The Host under "Enviromentalist Propaganda" and forget about it.  In context, the opening is actually very funny.  It's more about how laughably ridiculous and dumb American arrogance is than how formaldehyde makes a monster.

To stretch, I'm sure there are things others wouldn't like about this movie, but they're really a matter of taste.  Perhaps you won't like the characters like I do.  They reminded me a lot of the Bluths from Arrested Development, and I know that plenty of people find the Bluths "unlikeable".  The Park family is kind of like that.  Dysfunctional, but still loyal to one another.  Deeply flawed, but trying to be noble.  But also mean, or stupid, or cold, or drunk at times.

You might also dislike how The Host plays three games at once: Action-Thriller, Comedy, Tragedy.  It swirls between them quickly in a way I find delectable.  But this also means that the movie inserts humor in its darkest moments, and insecurity into scenes where you want the heroes to be invincible.  I love this so much, but I know others may think it scatterbrained or inappropriate (but I snub those opinions, anyway- snub, snub).

But if you like your monster movies to be great films too, I highly recommend The Host.  Or if you like your action movies to be wish-fulfilling and epic, I highly recommend The Host.  Or if you like your family dramas full of broken, realistic people, I highly recommend The Host.  You get the point...



  1. At first, I was terrified you meant the other "The Host." However, this one sounds quite interesting. I will definitely have to watch it.

  2. At first, I was terrified you meant the other "The Host." However, this one sounds quite interesting. I will definitely have to watch it.