Monday, March 19, 2007

FILM: "The Host"

Monster flicks are, by nature, improbable. But at least the dexterous, tail-snapping mutant amphibian of Korean horror film The Host is the only thing that's improbable. Joon-ho Bong directs with a firm hand, doing his best to make the monster an ordinary creature: when it first appears--a dark cloud underwater--people throw food and beer to it, laughing and cheering at their good sport. A few moments later, under the bright and sunny sky, it runs alongside the banks of the River Han, swallowing bright and sunny people whole, and for all that it's a mutant creature, it seems perfectly plausible for it to do so. That's what makes The Host so wildly successful: it's as easy to laugh at as to cringe at.

The heroes, the adorably flawed Park family, are bumbling idiots. Gang-du, a narcoleptic, not only loses his daughter while fleeing the rampaging beast, but grabs the wrong girl. When his sister, Nam-Joo, and brother, Nam-Il try to help him rescue his daughter from the creature's underground lair, they only multiply their failings. Even their father, Hie-bong, isn't good at much more than criticizing their feeble attempts. Were this a serious horror film, they'd be dead long before the monsters even showed up. Instead, Joon-ho prolongs the quiet, awkward moments of these anti-heroes: after the first attack, when they still believe Hyun-seo to be dead, they mourn her with crocodile tears and wild flailing. It's a grotesque display of humor, but in the light of such ridiculous people, who's to say a wiry green blob can't use its tail to swing from beam to beam as it swallows people like so many flies?

Nor is the film simply about a mirthful mutant or a foolish family. It's about a guileless government too, mired in inaction and fear. After an impromptu decision to quarantine the area because the believe the monster to be a virus carrier (or "the host"), they come up with the notion of destroying all life in the area with a biological response known as Agent Yellow. They do more damage to the Park family, who they believe to be infected, than they do to the beast, and despite protests from the entire Korean populace, go ahead with their insane plots. In the midst of all the chaos, Joon-ho lingers on a shot of some U.S. military men in the middle of a cookout: it's no different from a similar shot of a dazed and confused Gang-du grilling some squid earlier in the film.

The Host isn't all that terrifying, actually, unless you consider how worrisome and accurate its social satire is. Eccentric experiments, a mendacious military, fumbling families, and humble heroes . . . this is a genre-defying film: a monster movie that dares to be more than scary.

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