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'The Host' Is Viciously Smart

2006/08/25 Source

Monster film devours Korean and U.S. competitors

Kyu Hyun Kim (qhyunkim)

One particular scene in "The Host" in retrospect almost looks like a commentary on the film's box office prowess. A young woman is enjoying a relaxed moment in the sunny Han River citizen's park, her ears covered by headphones. She is totally oblivious to other visitors madly dashing past her, eyes popping out of their sockets and screaming until their lungs burst. WHAM! A thing that looks like a gigantic tadpole with malformed legs and a hungry, lamprey mouth stomps her, like an SUV with a Texas license plate squishing an armadillo. She and other panicked Seoulites, some of whom will end up inside the monster's belly before the movie gets past its first fifteen minutes, might as well be standing for "The Host's" competitors.

As of mid-August 2006, this ungainly but dexterous beastie hopped past the awe-inspiring ten-million-ticket threshold in record time (21 days, compared to the previous box-office champ "King and the Clown's" 45 days). It is all but certain that "The Host" will be crowned as the new biggest moneymaker in Korean cinema history. At this point any industry wag trying to predict its final score has as much chance of getting it right as a prospector trying to find a lost dime with a pair of dowsing rods on the streets of New York City: as the stunned producer Choi Yong-bae is quoted as saying, "no one knows how far it can go".

The film has generated its share of controversies. Debates rage among Koreans regarding its virtual monopoly over theater screens (it opened at 620 screens nationally, another all-time record) as well as its alleged anti-American orientation (the monster's origin is traced to the toxic chemicals dumped into the Han River by the American military, based on an actual incident).

Ironically, "The Host" had never been a shoo-in project from the investor's point of view. Older Koreans have always taken pride in professing utter ignorance in and disdain for anything related to science fiction and fantasy --"kiddie flicks", they used to snort. Conversely, younger people, with their bar of taste raised up by the likes of "Lord of the Rings" and the "Matrix" trilogies, have remained skeptical that a Korean production could pull it off.

It did not help the matter that past domestic attempts at SF/fantasy tended to concentrate on the surface polish at the expense of contents, as examples like "Yesterday", "Natural City" and "Wonderful Days" sometimes painfully illustrate. (As for the redoubtable Shim Hyung-rae's "Yonggari" a.k.a "Reptilian", the kindest thing is probably to let it languish in obscurity.)

So how come "The Host" got it right this time? Well, here's a boringly simple answer: because the folks who made it knew what they were doing. Director Bong Joon-ho (who previously helmed the brilliant docu-drama "Memories of Murder") has thoroughly digested the conventions of genre filmmaking but instead of merely regurgitating them he adapts them to his own purposes, tweaking the audience expectations in the process.

The result is a true cinematic mutant: a fusion of an intelligently playful, socially conscious 70s drive-in horror and a political comedy of the absurd in which hapless citizens are entrapped, chased around and engulfed by the Moloch-like bureaucracies, a cross-breed of Joe Dante and Milos Forman penned by John Sayles and William Goldman collaborating, with the technical adroitness of the early James Cameron mixed in.

Considering the film's budget is still small by the Hollywood standard, its technical achievements are impressive. The creature is beautifully designed by the conceptual artist Jang Hee-cheol. Hideous, slickly graceful and at times surprisingly charming, it is definitely a living-and-breathing character, much like the simian protagonist in Peter Jackson's "King Kong", even though the CGI effects are understandably not perfect.

Cinematographer Kim Hyung-koo, who masterminded the twilight dusk and golden rice fields for wonderfully ironic effects in "Memories of Murder", captures the grimy wetness of Seoul's underbelly, working with ace lighting directors Lee Gang-san and Jeong Young-min. Production designer Ryoo Seong-hee ("Old Boy") and her team keep the surroundings both unnervingly familiar and entertainingly flamboyant. Lee Byeong-woo ("Untold Scandal") alternates between pounding percussive action for the monster's onslaught and goofily melancholic accordion-inflected circus-like melodies for illustrating the Park family's travails.

The narrative does lose some of its tightness in the middle section, but we should all be glad that "The Host" gets rid of numerous Hollywood blockbuster cliches. No marines with camouflage-smeared noggins carrying grenade launchers save the day. No pulsating monster egg promising a lame sequel. No annoying pencil-necks who might as well have "Monster Chow" labels stuck on their foreheads. No last-minute survival for the characters without any recourse but to die. Remake producers, please take note.

Perhaps the biggest distinction "The Host" has from an ordinary American blockbuster is its absolute refusal to make its characters heroic. Indeed, the Parks are the kind who would end up as second-tier comic relief in a Marvel comic adaptation, bumbling and frustrated folks waiting for superheroes to save their collective rear ends. Here they are put in the front and center of the narrative.

The Korean film's unique humor results not only from its wickedly on-target satirical jabs but also from Bong's deadpan observation of the hilariously clumsy (and ultimately moving) ways in which the protagonists desperately swim against the overwhelming tide of hostility and obstruction from all corners of society.

And it is not difficult to read much more layered and nuanced political outrage in the undercurrent of "The Host" than its surface-level thumb-on-the-nose mockery of the Bush administration, squarely directed at the indifference and hypocrisies of Koreans themselves. The concrete bridges of the Han River and their undersides, so familiar to millions of commuters and high-rise residents, are transformed into a stygian grotto. From these and other ordinary-looking Seoul locations, the disaster could strike out and devour hapless citizens, as happened more than once in real life (The ignominious collapse of the Seong-soo Bridge in 1994, resulting in 32 deaths, being but one example).

Lastly, the movie's power is enormously enhanced by masterful casting. Song Kang-ho, probably the most reliable lead actor in Korean cinema today, presents a flawless portrayal of the dysfunctional but sympathetic Kang-doo, utterly believable as a tearfully frustrated petty-bourgeois nobody as well as an incongruously wise Fool with sharp insights into the core truth of a given situation. Super-cool Park Hae-il ("Memories of Murder") and cult actress Bae Doona ("Barking Dogs Never Bite") are cast against type as bickering siblings: unfortunately their shadows become a bit thin in the latter half.

Top acting honors must go to the terrific young trouper Go Ah-sung, as Kang-doo's daughter Hyun-seo, and the veteran character actor Byun Hee-bong ("My Teacher, Mr. Kim", "Crying Fist"). Byun beautifully essays the leathery paterfamilias with world-weary dignity and just a hint of Jack Nicholson-like crazed energy.

"The Host" is a superior genre film with an inimitable sense of humor, covering all the bases of a low-budget bite-your-butts creature feature AND an expertly constructed human drama of the first order. Its financial success, the question of monopolistic distribution practice notwithstanding, is richly deserved. We can now be cautiously optimistic that "The Host's" runaway success might open doors for more Korean film projects with genuinely imaginative ideas and fantastic premises. After all, how can any movie idea be more ridiculous and childish than a mutant tadpole crawling out of the Han River and eating people? Isn't that right, Mr. Realistic Korean Man?

2006 OhmyNews

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