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NYFF: The Host

October 7th, 2006 (11:59 pm)

© 2006 D. Gordon

The Host
Dir: Bong Joon-ho

In my rambles, I've heard quite a bit about The Host (Gwoemul). And now I've seen it. And now I'm really beginning to understand the buzz behind the Korean film industry. The Host is a monster movie - and a whole lot more.

From the Seoul Times

Park Hie-bong runs a food stand in a park by the Han River with his son Gung-do, an almost narcoleptic man with blond-tipped hair who comes across as a Korean translation of the word "stoner." With them is Hyung-seon, Gung-do's 9-year-old daughter, who may have been an accident (her mother left right after giving birth) but is definitely not a mistake. A cute little schoolgirl, she's the apple of her relatives' eyes, although she's likely the most mature among them. On the periphery is her aunt Nam-ju, a Korean archery champion whose life is a series of missed opportunities, and alcoholic uncle Nam-il, a college graduate with nothing going for him. The older family members are all at loggerheads, and they're pretty much the textbook definition of dysfunctional family. Their one redeeming trait, however, is the love they share for the little girl. When a monster emerges from the waters of the Han River, wreaks havoc, grabs the girl, and disappears, they're devastated (and I never thought I'd see a comedic funeral scene in the face of such clear tragedy, but there you go). And when they get proof that the little girl isn't dead, they've got to pull it together and save her - facing not only the creature but the authorities who won't listen to them.

What a great movie! Frankly, if most monster movies were like this I'd be a much, much bigger fan. The monster is key to the story, and this film is very careful to get its form, its actions, its backstory - everything about it - right. If this story were to happen, how it happened and the universe it's happening in are incredibly believable. The added bonus is the fully developed story running alongside the monster - and everything about that is just as carefully constructed. The family is really the focus; without being maudlin, they are hilarious, serious, substantial, well-acted characters that elicit a lot of empathy. There's commentary about Korean society[1], the US military presence, the competence of the Korean military and civil authorities... all acting as a backdrop to the monster's rampage. (Or maybe the monster's rampage is the backdrop to the family?...) And that, I think, is what's missing from the average monster movie: enough reality to make it real.

The acting was good to great (Song Kang-ho as Park Gung-do and Byeon Hie-bong as Park Hie-bong had a little more to work with that the other adults), but I want to especially point out Ko Ah-sung as Hyung-seon. She was in a bind, but she was one tough cookie. Maybe that's how she survived her family, as well. %^} There are a couple of stereotypical American millitary folk, but they aren't key roles (well, one sort of is-but-isn't).

One of the most enjoyable parts was watching with a jazzed up audience. The movie so far is only making the rounds of the film festivals in North America (I think the only scheduled release outside of Korea at this point is France), so this really packed in the fanboys and the dates. The midnight (okay, 11:59 pm) showing time made it twice as fun. But the audience's gasping / laughing / cringing gets to the heart of movie-going - sharing the experience.

Again, what a great movie. I want to drag everyone I know to see it.


[1] - One example: Uncle Nam-il would have been in college around the time that South Korea made the painful transition from a military dictatorship to a democracy. Many of the college students at the time were very politically active and helped to bring down the dictatorship, and did earn their degrees, but there were no jobs and no real future for them after their political goals were achieved.