Heart and Seoul
I will admit to taking some petty pleasure in being able to say that I knew about Oscar sensation Bong Joon-Ho all the way back in 2007, when I went to go see The Host at the age of 15. Though not an obscure indie by any means – its budget was over ten million dollars, and it broke South Korean box office records – it received a limited release here in the states, and certainly wasn’t a household name among foreign movies of the time. With Parasite getting unprecedented media attention, I thought I’d look back at Bong’s unconventional monster movie.
We open in a government medical lab, where an arrogant American military scientist (Scott Wilson) orders his assistant (Brian Lee) to pour dozens of old bottles of toxic formaldehyde down the drain, which ultimately leads to Seoul’s Han River. Soon after, a few locals spot a small mutated creature swimming in the river.
Cut to six years later, where we’re introduced the Park family – no-nonsense grandfather Hie-bong (Byun Hee-bong), his dim-witted son Gang-Doo (Song Kang-Ho), and Gang-Doo’s bright 13-year-old daughter Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung) – who make a middle-class living with their riverside food stand. While bringing food to customers, Gang-Doo spots the now-massive creature hanging from a bridge over the river. Moments later, the creature drops into the water, swims to shore, and storms the riverbank, killing several people before grabbing Hyun-seo and swimming away with her. The monster’s introduction and subsequent rampage is an undeniable highlight of the movie, a quiet exercise in tension-building that suddenly explodes into masterfully-directed chaos.
In the wake of the attack, the local military and intervening American forces put the city on lockdown out of fear that the creature might be carrying a deadly virus. When the quarantined Gang-Doo gets a phone call from Hyun-seo revealing she is alive and trapped inside the monster’s storm drain lair, he enlists his father and his two siblings, educated alcoholic Nam-il (Park Hae-il) and women’s archery runner-up Nam-Joo (the aptly-named Bae Doo-na), to help him escape the military’s clutches and save Hyun-seo.
In his telling of this story, Bong mixes tones with gleeful abandon, playing scenes in unexpected ways that shouldn’t work yet somehow do thanks to his unflappable assurance. One sequence has the Parks mourning Hyun-seo’s apparent death in front of several onlookers, the family literally collapsing with grief one moment and coming to angry blows the next. It’s easy to imagine this breakdown played melodramatically, risibly straight, but Bong embraces the situation’s absurdity and earns big laughs while still creating sympathy for our main characters.
This skill proves key to The Host’s success, because what really makes the movie is its lovably dysfunctional family of heroes. They may not be the smartest, toughest, or most honorable bunch, but they all love Hyun-seo deeply and are willing to risk their lives to save her. They’re a group so thoroughly, recognizably human that it’s impossible not to root for them, none more so than Gang-Doo. Thanks to the clever script and Song Kang-Ho’s winning performance, Gang-Doo emerges as both a hapless goofball and a devoted father capable of real bravery. Bong clearly has great affection for these characters, and the feeling is infectious.
On the negative side, the storytelling can be clunky, and one suspects the writers began with a list of scenes they wanted to include and adjusted the story in between to accommodate them. As a result, the plotting sometimes resorts to sloppy tricks like the use of implausible deus ex machina to get from point A to point B. That said, the pacing rarely suffers, and the scenes are generally so entertaining on their own that their sporadic lack of coherence with the greater story is easy to forgive. The unconventional narrative also makes the movie excitingly unpredictable – especially during its on-the-lam second act. There is one climactic moment that seasoned moviegoers will see coming, but it’s executed with such crowd-pleasing panache that you’ll cheer anyway.
It’s hard to imagine any of this working nearly as well if the movie’s title attraction were a letdown, but it’s quite the opposite. The Host’s monster is a uniquely grotesque creation: an amphibious hodgepodge of aquatic creatures. With its many legs and multi-jawed face, it’s a visually indelible movie monster, notable especially for its front-heavy silhouette. The CGI effects have aged quite well; there are shaky moments here and there, but the monster convinces more often than not, never more so than during the harrowing scenes of Hyun-seo in its lair. These are the only times the movie fully embraces horror, and they don’t disappoint. The narrow, cavernous storm drain is a hellishly realized location, with palpably dank concrete surfaces and bodies piled on the floor. Crucially, these scenes are used sparingly; Hyun-seo’s subplot gets the exact amount of time it deserves, and its simple but effective storyline shows more discipline than the rest of the movie.
Unlike the occasionally-iffy CGI, the rest of the movie’s technical aspects leave little to be desired. The moody cinematography helps to create a tangible sense of place, cleverly starting off on a warmly saturated sunny day which offers a striking contrast to the dark grays and greens that dominate the movie’s perpetually rainy midsection. And Lee Byung-woo’s score oozes personality, filtering a tuneful main theme through whatever arrangement suits the current mood, be it scary, comic, or mournful.
Somehow The Host works as both a daring reinvention of the monster movie and a thoroughly satisfying exemplar. It’s been compared to Jaws, and although the two are vastly different, they both understand that compelling human characters make a world of difference. The other obvious comparison is with current favorite Parasite. Bong’s class satire is a brilliantly-crafted movie, but a relatively distant one; impeccably engineered, but engineered nonetheless. The Host, contrarily, is the audaciously personal vision of its creator. Though it has a comedic streak, it’s also soulful and deeply felt, messy but thrillingly alive. Parasite may be the more accomplished movie, but my heart belongs to The Host.