Thursday, February 18, 2016

Movie Review: Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Monster? in 'The Host' (2006)

Bong Joon-ho's The Host (Korean title 괴물 or Monster) is one of those movies that you keep on hearing about when the people on the internet talk about really good Korean movies. For the longest time I didn't want to watch it mostly because it's a monster movie with lots of potential scares. But I didn't need to worry all that much. The Host does have a monster and is full of surprises, but it is ultimately a funny family drama and a smart satire with a special guest from a special creature.

At the military morgue in Yongsan, an American doctor tells his Korean subordinate to dump a bunch of chemicals down the drain just because he doesn't like the sight of dusty bottles. Despite his initial reluctance about the dangers of this scenario, the Korean subordinate eventually starts draining what at first seemed like only a dozen bottles but end up being about a small pond's worth. Flash forward a few years on the very banks of the Han river. Lazy, good-for-nothing Kang-doo (Song Kang-ho) helps his father Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong) run a snack stand. It seemed like a regular day until a few spectators sees a creature in the river, providing them with minor entertainment. But what they thought was a funny dolphin turns out to be a giant fish with legs, chasing after the citizens and gobbling them up. Kang-doo grabs his daughter Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung) and makes a run for it, but Hyun-seo got left behind and eventually the monster grabs her and runs away. Hyun-seo's supposed death reunited Hee-bong's children, an unemployed former activist Nam-il (Park Hae-il) and talented archer with weak nerves Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na). Since Kang-doo made contact with the monster, he had to go under several tests despite his many protests. Just when he began to lose hope, Kang-doo gets a call from his daughter and the family's frantic chase to find her begins.

Since I've never really watched monster movies because of my cowardice, I can't compare The Host with other monster movies. Despite that, I don't think this is your regular run-of-the-mill thriller. It's starts out pretty classic with the sudden emergence of a monster that attacks innocent passerbys, leaving a trail of blood on his tails. But oddly enough, the fish monster doesn't get that much screen time. In the words of Pierce Conran for Modern Korean Cinema, "...consider it as a dressed up family melodrama". I totally agree. The monster only serves as a catalyst for this dysfunctional family to maybe realize how precious they are to each other, but whether it's an effective method is still worth considering.

One of the most unexpected thing about The Host for me though is how utterly funny it is. So funny in fact that I sometimes forget it's a movie with a scary monster in it. The promotional material that I've seen of it is focused more on the monster and how terrifying it is, rather than the actual main plot of the movie which deals with a dysfunctional multi-generational family dealing with an incompetent and corrupt government. This is a pleasant surprise for me, but to those who are looking for serious thrillers might not be too keen on it. Just remember that this isn't a straight up monster movie. That's what you're getting with The Host.

In fact, The Host is the perfect example of a movie with mixed genres. A bit of thriller, a bit of satire, a bit of black comedy, a bit of melodrama. But ultimately, it's just a great movie to watch. Really, the scariest thing about it is when Kang-doo has to get big needles down into him. The needles are, to me, much scarier than that big ol' fish.

Speaking of satire, Bong Joon-ho really went for it with the mocking of government official heads in this one. I've watched three other Bong Joon-ho's movies in the past and all of them were heavy on the social commentary, but they weren't as blatant as The Host. So much so that I wonder if Bong got in a bit of trouble with the movie. He didn't paint them in the best light, to put it nicely. He purposefully exaggerated their actions, making their incompetence grating your nerves at times and pointing them out to viewers just in case they might miss it. But the comedy dulls the edges a bit keeping the movie firmly in the highly entertaining category, which is really what The Host is all about.

The Host is one of those movies that becomes what you make of it. If you like comedy, this is one full of laughter. If you hate the government a little that day, The Host might ease your pain a little. If you want a family melodrama with a twist, you're looking at the right place. If you crave a monster movie, the monster is pretty terrifying but don't expect too much. Just look somewhere else in the movie for another monster because I think the scariest one isn't the mutant fish, if you know what I mean.

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