Judge Joel Pearce never pours anything that could create a monster, but does occasionally create a monster hangover.
Our review of The Host (2013) (Blu-ray), published July 9th, 2013, is also available.
A tale of pollution, giant fish-monsters, and family dysfunction.
What would happen if the Korean film industry were to re-imagine the Godzilla franchise? Well, probably something a lot like The Host. It is a monster movie and an environmental fable, but it accomplishes much more than that. Somehow over the film's two hours, it also incorporates slapstick comedy, keen social and political commentary, and a family melodrama the likes of which only the Korean film industry can manage. It's not the best movie of 2006, but it just might be the most fun.
Facts of the Case
In 2000, an American doctor on a military base in Korea forced a Korean subordinate to pour massive amounts of formaldehyde into the Han River. The Korean government tried to prosecute, but it took years, thanks to the unhelpful American government.
This film is a fantasy extension of that story, in which a giant mutant is created from the toxic waste. The battle against the creature gets caught up in bureaucratic red tape, but the real focus is on the Park family, the unlikeliest group of heroes since The Goonies. Hie-bong (Hie-bong Byeon, Crying Fist) is the family patriarch, running a food stand on the bank of the Han River. He is helped—sort of—by his youngest son Gang-du (Kang-ho Song, Memories of Murder). He is a sleepyheaded loser, and the only thing he truly cares about is his own young daughter, Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko). When Hyun-seo is captured by the beast, father and son are joined by the other Park children, unemployed college grad Nam-il (Hae-il Park, Memories of Murder) and hesitant archery master Nam-joo (Du-na Bae, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance).
Director Joon-ho Bong needs no introduction for fans of Korean film. His Memories of Murder is one of the best films of the decade, somehow turning a true story into a thoughtful comedy-drama blend that worked on numerous levels. While The Host isn't as strong a film overall, it manages to simultaneously parody and transcend the monster movie genre. There are a few things that hold it all together:
1. It's quite funny. While much of the humor here is physical, it is certainly never too broad. There are some delightful slapstick moments (such as the head biologist's entrance), but much of the humor is also subtle and clever. The monster is an awkward, stumbling creature, especially on land. Its physicality is a riot, especially in the small details. It's also a savagely ironic film, which means that the dialogue is snappy and clever. I'm guessing that several of the lines have become regularly quoted in Korea.
2. It's intelligent. We don't really go into monster movies to get coherent discussions about important issues, but it's hard to ignore the social commentary running just underneath the surface. America is portrayed as a land of official secrets, taking advantage of Korea as a test for their new biologic agent (not-so-subtly called Agent Yellow). The Korean government is portrayed as ignorant, unhelpful, and incompetent. Like all great horror movies, frightened people are far more dangerous than the monster, which isn't even present for the most frightening sequences. The cinematography is also truly impressive, which makes The Host a delight to watch. On subsequent viewings, cool little details that were missed the first time around pop out.
3. It's unpredictable. We are never sure where Joon-ho Bong is going to take us next. There is so much of the plot that I haven't included in my rundown, but I don't want to spoil these twists for new viewers. Plus, it gets so convoluted after a while that it becomes hard to describe. The most important thing to know is that this film is willing to do things that would make American studio executives to run from the project screaming. Think Jaws re-written by Joss Whedon.
4. It's touching. While the Park family initially seem to be horribly stereotypical (which they are), we really get attached to these pathetic losers over the course of the film. All of them dive into their roles with so much sincerity and depth that the family drama often threatens to overwhelm the monster movie. They are the dysfunctional family we all know, but tossed into a completely implausible situation.
I have few complaints about The Host. It isn't that scary, other than a few suspenseful scenes and jump moments. It's never boring or slow, but horror junkies will probably come away wishing for a few more bone-chilling sequences. The melodrama can also be a bit much from a North American perspective, and it gets to be a bit silly sometimes. Aside from those minor complaints, though, it's pretty hard to lose with The Host. It's a truly awesome film.
Magnolia entertainment has also delivered a truly exceptional disc. Korean films are often shortchanged in North America, but we get the true special edition treatment here. The image quality is great, with only occasional edge enhancement getting in the way of visual perfection. Color is spot-on, as well as a rich black level. The sound transfer is also good, with thunderous bass and clear dialogue. The surrounds rarely leap into action, though, which is a shame. On the first disc, we get a commentary in English, with director Joon-ho Bong and a guest. It's a fantastic track, full of interesting conversations. Bravo to Magnolia for putting that together. We also get a few deleted scenes and news casts, some of which are pretty entertaining. Finally, we get some reflections from the director. It's a riot, as he apologizes to the cast and crew for a variety of things that happened on set. The second disc is packed with production and marketing information, in a very comprehensive package. We get interviews, production footage, storyboard samples, actor training sequences, and a range of other footage. You could spend hours exploring this additional footage, and all of it is interesting. Fans of The Host will have a blast exploring the second disc. it's one of the best treatments of a foreign film that I have ever seen.
While its strange blend of elements might not work for everyone, I think most people will be thrilled by The Host. It's consistently funny, sometimes, scary, often clever, and always entertaining. What more could we possibly ask for, except maybe an engaging special edition. Well, we get that, too, so you're all out of excuses to miss out on The Host.
Great film, Great DVD…congratulations all around. Joon-ho Bong is instructed to make more movies, and Magnolia is instructed to continue to create these kind of editions.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
• Director Commentary
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