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[HanCinema's Hall of Fame Review] "The Host"

2013/09/28 | 540 views | Permalink

In the Spotlight this Week: "The Host" (2006) by Bong Joon-ho

Seeing genetically mutated monsters on the big screen is a fascinating thrill. These cinematic devils infect us with panic along with a twisted sense of responsibility that echoes, "what have we done?" The directors who manage to successfully birth these beasts are digital sorcerers from another time, mad storytellers whose creatures haunt the society they release them on. In 2006 Bong Joon-ho regurgitated "The Host" on Seoul, a monstrous mash that climbed to the top of Korea's all-time grossing greats, and there it has stubbornly sat for seven years now. The myth is that Bong delivered 13 million Koreans into its clutches, a record body count that helped to make him one of the most sought-after directors in the South. This wanted outlaw was last seen heading west on a French train, but he left his monster behind to remember, remember.

Monster movies' general genesis involves mankind dealing with the evil creations it spawns as we pursue, or react to, power and its influence. Man is the red flame that warms the monstrous modern oven we let start to burn and smoke, releasing a nightmare that ravages a particular community or society. In 1954 Japanese director Ishirō Honda released "Godzilla", an iconic science fiction Kaiju (or "strange creature") film that came out soon after the Empire's recent fallout with the U.S. "Godzilla" was born in the aftermath of Japan's surrender to America's nuclear might. While clearly not on the same scale, "The Host" does access that ideological caldron that criticises America and its socio-political imperialist agenda, casting a harsh light on American culture and its impact on Korea's modernity.

In "The Host", a U.S scientist orders his South Korean subordinate to pour copious amounts of a volatile chemical compound directly into the Seoul's Han River. After some brief protest he obliges his foreign superior, an act that results in a mysterious water-born monster. The creature emerges in broad daylight at a riverside park, terrorises and gobbles a few locals, and then retreats back to the water and its new lair. The government steps in and tries to take control of the situation as it sees it. This is as close as Bong takes us to the monster genre's core, shifting the spotlight from the amphibious apparition and the threat it clearly represents, to the capital's obsessive pursuit of the phantom virus the beast is supposedly 'hosting' and spreading. The government's response to the crisis is a retroactive plea that fuels public fear, not quite the "search and destroy" mission Hollywood might have launched.

Those exposed to the creature are quickly quarantine and the official word is that a virus outbreak is imminent. This type of public paranoia was also recently re-imagined in Kim Seong-su's "The Flu" (3.1 million infections), another Korean disaster movie where a foreign infection covertly enters the country. This molysmophobia is not an exclusively modern-day affliction.  The Hermit Kingdom resisted foreign bodies for roughly half a millennium but was eventually breached, a national trauma that saw Korea violently birthed into a new world. The umbilical Han became infected, the country's life force annexed and people made anxious in fear of the new organisms and their myths. Korea has a history of unwillingly hosting violent alien bodies, and in Bong's monster mash-up that collective history was transfigured into the Han's very own supernatural guardian.

For all the film's promise of monsters and mayhem, "The Host" is steered by an atypical amount of melodrama and heartache. It is not the police, the military, or a special team of experts that attempts to dispatch the beast, but a family of underachievers who fumble and stumble their way to the abomination's lair in search of the little girl it stole from them. This is a much more personal and noble quest, and while the film's political ideology clouds the greater populace's airwaves, Gang-du (Sang Kong-ho) and his foolish bloodline persevere as they try to reclaim their future. While Gang-du and his family scout the actual monster, the city of Seoul only reacts to the potential of an alien epidemic, instead of the actual host that lives along the riverbank and is eating people. There is no virus though, just a foreign sugar pill that shames its host into repeating history; and it's that very future this small and brave family is hoping to save and protect.

"The Host" is a deeply absorbing film that managed to break the box office and still reigns as modern Korea's favourite cinematic nightmare. This, Bong Joon-ho's third commercial feature, was a smashing follow-up to his previous cultural probing "Memories of Murder" (2003), and the maestro is still riding the rails of success from his recent, French-inspired, adaptation "Snowpiercer". "The Host" pushed the pillars of genre and mysteriously echoes Korea's on-going and unsettled social relationship with America's presence within their Seoul. It's the beast to beat at the moment and despite having been seriously threatened these past two years, "The Host" remains Korea's most loved monster. Catch it if you can.  

- C.J. Wheeler (chriscjw@gmail.com; @KoreaOnTheCouch)

 

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