The Host (Gwoemul) (2006)

The Host (Gwoemul) first published by EyeforFilm

If Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003) was the last serial killer movie in which the detectives were all bumbling farmboys and the crimes were left unsolved, it was probably the first, too. For it is Bong’s special talent to distort both genre and reality by forcing them into unlikely partnerships – and what Memories of Murder was to the typical police procedural flick, his latest, The Host (or Gwoemul, literally ‘monster’), is to the average monster movie.

Six years after an American military officer orders a reluctant Korean underling to dump formaldehyde into the Han River, the dysfunctional Parks are, like everybody else, going about their daily routine with no idea of the dangers brewing below the surface of Seoul’s waterways. Bleach-dyed, impoverished thirtysomething Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) is so dim-witted that even his own aging father Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong) suspects he may be intellectually disabled. Gang-du’s sister Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na) is a taciturn competition archer too hesitant ever to win gold, while their brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il) is a heavy-drinking, unemployed graduate whose one talent, garnered from years of student protests, is evading capture. All that these misfits have in common is their love for Gang-du’s 13-year-old daughter Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung), abandoned at birth by her mother.

On that fateful summer’s day, as Gang-du is helping his dad run their riverside food stall, a giant aquatic mutant comes lumbering from the water, fast, aggressive and very hungry. In the bloody confusion that follows, little Hyun-seo is carried off by the creature and assumed dead, while the rest of the Parks are quarantined, with the American forces claiming that the mutant is host to a contagious virus. But then unexpectedly Gang-du’s daughter calls him on a scratchy cellphone, and the family of no-hopers is galvanised into action, as they must overcome their differences, elude the police and military, face personal tragedy, and even in one case survive lobotomy, in order to find Hyun-seo, alive or dead.

The Host is like a mutant hybrid spawned from the improbable union of Little Miss Sunshine and Godzilla. For the film is a family comedy and political satire in which an unnaturally evolved fish just happens to loom (very) large. Bong expertly balances absurd humour against tense thrills, and domestic drama against mass mayhem, reasserting South Korea’s place at the pinnacle of genre-busting cinema – and most of all he surprises at every turn in a film where, despite a realistic social milieu, almost anything seems possible.

Like the original Godzilla, The Host uses a real-life event – in this case the well-documented disposal of toxic chemicals into the Han river by the American military in 2000 – as the starting point for a nature’s revenge plot, allowing Bong to expose along the way many of the anxieties and tensions in contemporary Korean society: concerns about environmental degradation, fear of a SARS-style epidemic, the uneasy alliance with the world’s only superpower, and the powerlessness of the ordinary individual before arrogant, corrupt and incompetent authorities. Bong’s band of heroes, led by the preposterous yet engaging Gang-du, gives voice to all the repressed hopes of the little man (and woman). It is hardly a coincidence that their dragon-slaying exploits are explicitly set against a backdrop of mass demonstrations and popular unrest.

The Host is that rare beast, a total cinematic experience – entertaining (and gripping) from start to finish, mixing unhinged laughs with tragic pathos, and engaging the brain as well as the heart. On top of all this, the creature itself ranks as one of the finest (and strangest) CG entities ever to have been realised on screen. For this is, in the end, a monster movie – just not as we know it.

© Anton Bitel