The Host (괴물, Bong Joon-ho: 2006)

Hardworking Hee-bong owns a food stall next to the Han River, and he works everyday alongside his slightly simple son, Gang-du. On a sunny day the river is packed with people enjoying the weather and the food stall is busy. When some of the people relaxing by the river see some sort of strange looking creature hanging on the bridge, their interest is raised. Unfortunately, the strange creature decides to take in interest in them too, and it divers into the water and heads towards the riverbank…

The less you know about The Host before you see it, the better. Having said that, even if you’ve seen the posters and the trailers and heard others raving about it, it’s still probably a little different to what you will be expecting. In a good way.

There’s a long version and a short version of this review. The short version goes like this:

The Host is a fantastic film. Go and see it.

For those of you with less faith and who require little justification in their reviews, here’s the longer version:

How better to follow up a critically acclaimed slow burning serial-killer thriller than with a big budget CGI-effects heavy popcorn flick? Bong Joon-ho obviously thought it would be a good idea as he follows his amazing Memories of Murder with The Host. On the surface The Host appears to be a very different film from that previous classic, but just under the surface it actually has more in common than you would expect.

The Host manages to twist and turn unexpectedly and walks a fine line between horror, comedy and drama – often all at the same time

Taking an unconventional approach to what feels initially like familiar material, The Host relishes its central monster plot with some excellent effects and action sequences. There’s no waiting for the film to kick into gear – no hanging around for an hour before some monster action (take note King Kong) – The Host kicks in after only a few minutes after the opening credits. Of course, a fancy monster and some nastiness will only take you so far so it’s a good thing that The Host’s has a strong story and a cast that is even more impressive than the CGI fanciness. Song Kang-ho gets to add another great performance to his CV as the simple Gang-du – although he’s ably supported by Ko Ah-sung as his thirteen year old daughter, Bae Doon-na as his archery-shooting sister, Park Hae-il as his ‘educated’ younger brother and finally Byung Hee-bong – who threatens to steal the film – as Hee-bong, Gang-du’s father and the owner of the food stand. This slightly dislocated family unit is thrown into turmoil after the initial appearance of the monster – the effect on the local area obviously becomes that of an emergency situation. From here we follow the family through their experiences in the hands of the emergency teams – but to reveal anymore of the plot would be just plain wrong. The Host manages to twist and turn unexpectedly and walks a fine line between horror, comedy and drama – often all at the same time.

Although it doesn’t rely solely on its special effects, The Host wouldn’t be quite so strong without a decent monster. Designed by the Weta workshop (who created the creatures for the Lord of the Rings films) and bought to life by The Orphanage Company (who created effects for Hero and Star Wars: Episode One), it’s a strange looking beast but also created as a convincing character in its own right. There’s one or two poorer effects shots, but this is still really solid CGI work. On occasion the creature itself is actually sidelined throughout the film, but thanks to a good script and strong performances, you don’t feel as if you are just waiting for the next appearance from the monster.

Bong Joon-ho portrays the Police and the Army with a cynical eye and the evident lack of interest that they show towards the people affected by the creature is expressed with an ironic humour and one which manages to highlight just how isolated the family are from any real help. In fact Bong seems to suggest that it is actually the authorities which are more of a threat than the creature. Saying this, The Host doesn’t get bogged down with politics or becoming preachy, because at the end of the day Bong recognises that he’s still making a big, fun monster movie. The political and social snipes that the film makes seem fairly playful, although they make their point – the SARS virus, American and Korean policy and the class and education system are all satirised, albeit in a simple nature. It should be no surprise to see a director who has previously tried to address some of these social issues won’t leave them alone – even for a big ‘monster movie’. Note the absence of the word ‘dumb’.

Some beautiful cinematography combined with some extremely well used and for the most-part creepily effective CGI effects means that The Host always looks great. The soundtrack is also a cause for excitement in its own right, sometimes it’s simply the sound of the creature that creates some of the most tense scenes.

Sadly, The Host is not perfect – if anything the final section of the film feels in too much of a rush and edges closer to standard monster movie ideas. Although the strong cast is very well-used with Song Kang-ho getting the majority of the screen time, Bae Doo-na as his archery-practicing sister is probably the least developed character. Complaints aside, the positive aspects of the film far outweigh the negative…..

The Host is, quite frankly, a breath of fresh air. The combination of script, performance, visual effects and its whole bag full of ideas, metaphors and biting social and political commentary makes it fairly unique. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the best film ever made (I would argue that it’s inferior to Bong’s previous film Memories of Murder), but it is one of the most consistently entertaining films in recent memory, and feels refreshingly unpredictable. Some may raise their eyebrows, but for all of the special effects, the scares and the laughs, The Host is – at its heart – a drama about family. It’s a big blockbuster style film with both a brain and a heart.

And a bloody great monster.

괴물 (The Host)
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Produced by Choi Yong-bae
Written by Baek Chul-hyun, Bong Joon-ho
Starring Song Kang-ho, Byun Hee-bong, Go Ah-sung, Bae Doona, Park Hae-il

The Host Image © Chungeorahm Film Sego Entertainment