Monday, April 26, 2010

The Host

Joon-ho Bong's The Host is a delirious modern monster movie, a throwback to the classic era of the sci-fi monster: all those nakedly metaphorical beasts formed from radiation or other side effects of man's scientific progress. And much like the classic Japanese monster movies, this Korean film is aimed squarely at the fear and anger caused by a foreign target: the United States. The film opens with an awkwardly acted scene in English, in which an American researcher instructs his Korean assistant to pour a shelf of chemical bottles down the drain, despite the assistant's protestations that this will cause harm to the Han River. Cut to a few years later, and something odd is definitely going on in the river as a result. Bong's unveiling of the monster — a mutated, somewhat lame sea creature with numerous vestigial limbs and a massive, terrifying maw — is the film's best sequence, a frantic action set piece that's both absurd and terrifying.

The monster appears abruptly, but before it does, it's just an ordinary day at a riverside park where Hie-bong (Hie-bong Byeon) runs a snack stand with his lazy, distracted son Gang-du (Kang-ho Song). Bong takes his time setting up the family dynamic here, because it's this family that's going to be at the center of the film once the monster does appear. Hie-bong has two children in addition to Gang-du: his educated but unemployed son Nam-il (Hae-il Park) and his athlete daughter Nam-joo (Du-na Bae), a professional archer who's just shy of being the best. When the monster shows up, Hie-bong, Gang-du, and Gang-du's daughter Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko) are watching Nam-joo lose a tournament on TV. Bong's presentation of the monster, interrupting this low-key domestic drama with its touches of comedy, is disarmingly offhand. The creature is an obvious CGI construction, with no attempt made to make it fit in naturally as an organic component of this otherwise realistic world: it stands out as something totally different, all glossy, slippery surfaces and distracting artificiality. As it rampages through the crowds gathered on the riverside, gobbling up some of the crowd and tossing others into the water with a flick of its tail, it is frightening and hilarious in nearly equal measures, this oddball CGI monster stalking across the riverbank as people scream and run. The artificiality of it all just makes it all the more disconcerting, especially since Bong approaches it with a goofy sense of humor, relishing the way limbs hang out of the monster's mouth after it eats up a victim, or the way the creature stumbles and somersaults down an embankment, moving awkwardly on its deformed limbs.

The human actors are, in their own way, equally stylized and artificial. They approach their parts with a broad comedic, satirical sensibility, purposefully over-emoting at every opportunity. A demonstration of grief, following the monster's assault, is a particularly good example, balanced as it is between devastating sadness and ludicrous exaggeration. The family rolls around on the floor, screaming and wrestling with one another, tearing at each other in grief and rage, and Bong switches to an overhead shot that shows them stretched out there on the ground, overcome by their feelings, expressing their loss in this embarrassingly naked way. Later, Bong's moments of political commentary are just as unfettered and raw; the film is a pretty clever, if not particularly subtle, jab at American dominance of international affairs, and the media's complicity in this dominance. Here, the Americans created the monster through their blatant lack of concern for the environment (especially the environments of the other countries they visit for cheap labor), then they invent the scare that the monster is causing a deadly disease, and then they insert themselves into the affair by offering a radical "solution" in the form of something called "Agent Yellow," a likely dangerous and carcinogenic chemical that they plan to unleash in Korea to kill the monster.

The film's guiding political concept is the idea that American foreign policy is exploitative and misguided, that the Americans oafishly cause problems and then make things even worse in trying to solve them. In this case, the terror over the supposed disease — which seems to have been made up through a combination of incompetence and a desire to cover up mistakes — creates an artificial panic that then allows the Americans to come in with a typically over-the-top, violent solution. Moreover, the Americans are deaf to concerns from other countries. In one of the film's most satirically biting scenes, Gang-du is confronted by an American doctor who takes Gang-du's insistence that his daughter is alive somewhere, imprisoned by the monster, as evidence of dementia, a sign that the disease (which he's starting to believe is fake, anyway) has taken over his brain. Gang-du cries out, in anguish, that they never listen to him, that they keep interrupting him and not letting him speak: "my words are words, too," he cries. It might as well be the filmmaker speaking, on behalf of all foreign peoples whose interests and concerns are trampled over by an intrusive, profit-motivated, military-industrial America.

Although this makes The Host sound like an unsubtle political screed, there's much more to the film than that, and the politics are approached with the same spirit of exaggeration and stylization as everything else in the film. Bong mashes together various tones and ideas with abandon, never settling into any one mode for long. The film's broad physical comedy, political satire, horror and action thus rub uncomfortably against one another, creating interesting frictions as multiple modes can coexist even within a single scene. It's all leading towards an action-packed climax in which this family, so divided and unhappy with each other, finally comes together, each of them adding their specific skills and qualities to the final confrontation with the monster. It gets to the heart of the film's implicit message: rely on family and community, ignoring the distractions and manipulations of politics. In the final scene, they turn off the TV, shutting down the American politicians using buzz words and euphemisms to absolve themselves of responsibility, and focus on enjoying the simple pleasures of family instead. It's a hard road to get to this point, though, through a lot of blood and gore.

It's a wild ride for the audience, too, thrown through the paces by Bong's free-wheeling sensibility of genre mash-ups. There are stunning action sequences, silly comedic bits with lots of slapstick falls and awkward chase scenes, moments of quiet family drama during the uncharacteristic pauses in the action, and of course the horror of the monster, who shows up every once in a while as though to remind the viewer what kind of movie this is at heart, no matter how many diversions into socio-political satire or absurdist comedy it takes along the way. The monster's most horrifying moment comes late in the film, when it suddenly stops simply slurping up victims and then spitting them out more or less intact in its sewer hideout. Instead, it vomits up a torrent of skulls and bones, the remains of its most recent victims, a seemingly never-ending stream of bodies denuded of all signs of flesh. It's all the more bracing and terrifying because Bong had avoided making the monster too bloodthirsty in the earlier stretches of the film.

In fact, there's something graceful about the monster, something even kind of poignant. It often swings through the girders beneath the bridge where it hides, doing gymnastic flips and swinging by its tail, gracefully leaping from one beam to the next. In one scene, its tail appears before it does, lazily turning in spiral patterns, strangely beautiful and hypnotic until the ungainly monster, all vicious-looking teeth and claws, comes careening out of the darkness. Even the monster's ultimate end is somewhat sad, as the creatures twists about in agony, wracked with pain, letting out a haunting cry as it turns on its back. This moment represents the ultimate victory of the family over its terror, but it's at the expense of this poor creature, deformed and mutated by circumstances beyond its control, transformed from an ordinary innocent sea creature into this monstrosity. Bong allows this ambiguity, this discomfiting affection for the monster, to linger throughout the final moments, preventing the obligatory defeat of the creature from being as entirely triumphant as one would expect.


Scare Sarah said...

I love asian horror and this did not disappoint. Really well shot.

Unknown said...

Ed, this is a great piece about the film, which, like Bong's other movies, has stuck with me since its first viewing. What I think you really best describe is the ambition of the film. Not necessarily in scope, but with tone.

I think anyone could just soullessly rehash the monster movie for modern audiences, but Bong actually has the monster take a back seat during stretches, so that every character in the family, while played stylistically, are also fleshed out as human beings.

And having written about Bong's films recently, particularly the social commentary present in his filmography, I am glad you mentioned that aspect as well, particularly how the family pools their talents at the end of the film when the government has demonstrated how little it cares about its citizens. It was the key message I took from the film, which is not something you would expect from the genre.

Ed Howard said...

Sarah, thanks for commenting. I obviously agree.

Steven, like you I admired how Bong was constantly stretching far beyond the typical monster movie into other genres, as well as developing the characters of the family beyond their archetypal basics.

As for the social commentary, over on Facebook Bill Ashline gave me some further info about the film's social relevance in its specifically Korean context: "This scene [the dumping of toxic chemicals] comes from a real event. Some years ago, the US military deliberately poured mercury into the Han River, the source of drinking water for over 20 million people... Bong is deliberately satirizing the excessive melodrama of many Korean films and TV programs, not to mention the culture at large. In fact, much of this film is local satire served for domestic consumption, just like his previous film, Memories of Murder. Some of it is in fact rather vicious, but a bit opaque at times to those who don't reside in Korea."

Craig said...

Nice write-up of one of my favorite films in recent years, Ed. What you and Steven have to say about Bong's view of family is perceptive, but what struck me was not only the validation of the family but the theme of creating familial bonds with total strangers. I get tired of movies where the hero stops at nothing to find his daughter (son, wife, husband, whatever), even if that means ignoring other victims along the way. In The Host, the main character pays a tragic price for grabbing the wrong girl's hand. Yet his rescuing (and eventually adopting) the boy that his daughter helped to save is very inclusive and moving.

Shubhajit said...

Great piece, Ed.

In the first paragraph itself you've made clear the three defining aspects of the movie - its darkly comic nature, its likeness to Japanese monster movies like Godzilla, & its not very subtle commentary on human callousness (and as you observed later, America's callousness too).

By the way, never expected that anyone might find the monster graceful. But now that you said it, I must say I do agree with that observation of yours. On one hand its deadly & unpredictable, yet on the other its movements represent almost that of a smooth opera artist. In fact loved the scene where it makes a 180 deg flip while chasing Hyun-seo as she dashes for her hiding place in the wall.

By the way, would love to hear your detailed take on the director's Memories of a Murder - a movie that I really loved.

Ed Howard said...

Craig, that's a very insightful point. The film's inclusiveness is especially potent when juxtaposed against the institutional indifference of all the social institutions who the family comes into contact with. No one else cares, so the only solution is to form a community — of family and whoever else — that will care for its own members.

Shubhajit, I loved how, like everything else in the film, the monster was a study in contradictions: kind of awkward, but yes, also oddly graceful. I loved that shot where its tentacle swirls around in a spiral, it's so hypnotizing.

I'll have to check out some more of Bong's work now, and Memories of Murder has jumped up the list as the next one to check out.