Monday, October 7, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #228 - The Host (2006, dir. Bong Joon-ho)

            Meet the Park family, proprietors of a snack stand along the touristy Han River in the South Korean capital of Seoul:
Gang-Du, the eldest son of the generous and caring widower Hie-bong, Gang-Du’s wife left him with their precocious young daughter Hyun-seo years ago and left him emotionally arrested at that stage in his life.
Nam-Joo, Hie-bong’s youngest, a champion archer with a penchant for choking when the pressure is on.
Nam-il, the educated activist middle child who has been unable to find gainful employment despite his education and who drinks to cover up his anger.
Hie-bong, the gentle patriarch who is struggling to care for his family economically, and who is ready to fight to hold them together.
Hyun-seo, youngest of the Park clan, trying to succeed in school despite a difficult upbringing and a father who, though he tries his best, fails her in many ways.

While the Parks work their snack stand, miles away an American military scientist examines the contents of his laboratory with his Korean assistant, sees hundreds of bottles of chemicals he deems to be spoiled, and has a conversation that culminates in the words “That’s right, let’s dump them in the Han River” - we know this can’t be good. Sure enough, shortly the local fisherman begin to notice fewer fish, and some of the ones they catch seem… different, perhaps with more tails than they usually have, and also perhaps a little more bite-y than usual. A man preparing to jump off a bridge sees a huge black shape moving in the water but can’t tell what it is.
And instead of spending half the film building up to the reveal of the monster as in most monster classics (Alien, Jaws, King Kong), we’re suddenly right into the thick of it - a mutated, amphibious monster that resembles a giant, dangerous tadpole with legs and too many teeth is running rampant along the walkways of the Han, crushing and flinging aside onlookers, grabbing some with its mouth or its tail, going in and out of the water. Naturally this happens right by the Park family stand at the most crowded and busy time of day, and as the monster runs wild through the crowd Gang-Du sees young Hyun-seo in danger and springs into action intent on protecting his family, one of the few onlookers who dares to assault the beast instead of running away screaming. But the monster nabs Hyun-seo with its tail, flees back to the water and off to its lair. Shortly afterward those who have come into contact with the monster are quarantined by the military because of their exposure to a virus the beast is carrying, and this includes the entire Park family. And so begins the meat of the film - the family coming together over their longstanding personal difficulties to find Hyun-seo. Which means that they not only have to find the monster's hidden lair in the city, but also evade the authorities who want them locked up and away from the general populace as they prepare to test a new chemical agent to destroy the beast - and possibly sell it for chemical warfare in the future.
Gang-Du (Bong regular Kang-ho Song) is both funny and touching as the eldest son, a slacker father lamenting his departed wife and dotingly focused on his daughter Hyun-seo (superbly played by Ko Asung), suddenly awakened out of his torpor to rescue his captured child. The film follows out many threads of the progress of different family members - Gang-du’s younger archer sister, his activist younger brother, and his father Hie-bong trying to keep them all together (and who, like his surprisingly active slacker son, is a real fighter when it comes to the monster). And of course there's resourceful young Hyun-seo, cool-headed under threat of being eaten by the mutant tadpole threatening all of Seoul.
Bong Joon-Ho's ease in genre - and also rejection of it - is a major plus here. Like all his films (that I've seen), he starts with what appears to be a straightforward genre piece and slowly sends it off the rails until it's something else entirely. Is this a thriller about a government cover-up? A family drama? A giant monster horror film? A black comedy? The answer is yes to all of those things. And the reason I've spent so much time talking about the family is because Bong took the time to think about them as well - he invests what could be a tawdry CGI-centric genre piece with real, flawed, believable people (helped immensely by an excellent cast who make us care about their foibles, about their problems), and helps us believe it when a giant killer tadpole snatches their daughter to its hidden lair to be eaten at a later time.
If you need a great horror film for your October viewing, check this one. If you need to see the earlier work of this year's Palme d'Or winning director, check this one (and also check out the superb Memories of Murder, itself another genre-defying genre film - this time a police procedural) before you go see the excellent Parasite when it opens. But really, Bong Joon-Ho hasn't stepped wrong in anything I've yet seen - I started with The Host and have yet to be disappointed, and you won't be either.
-         Patrick Brown

No comments: