31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 14 – Don’t Break the Quarantine – The Host (2006/dir. Bong Joon-ho/South Korea)

Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.

For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of select horror films in all of the spectrum, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…

This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. So, how about that Ebola scare? Looking like everybody is about ready to stick their heads back in their doors and let themselves die in their homes. So, why not show a film that largely makes a mockery of the mess of bureaucracy, hysteria, and lack of responsibility that takes shape when the words “outbreak” are uttered on the news.

What do you get when you mix the threat of Godzilla, the family dysfunctionality from Malcolm in the Middle, the genre-bending of Shaun of the Dead, the earnest humor of Sam Raimi’s work and the bureaucratic apathetic nightmare of Brazil? Well, if you mix it perfectly, you get The Host, one of the more unique horror/comedies I ever encountered in my life.
It’s not secret to most of my friends that I’m pretty in love with most of what Korean cinema offers me, with little exception. Park Chan-wook is one of my earliest directors I’ve noticed and the cinematography of most of the Korean pictures I’ve seen, Kodak fascinations into horrifying circumstances, inspires much of how I try to make my movies and construct my shots (though, I’m barely even able to touch that quality). Let alone the fantastic and imaginative stories these movies tell, most of all present in the movie I’m about to review. I’m surprised I still haven’t seen any South Korean music videos… wait, a minute, no!

Anyway, so my experience with this movie goes wayyy back to high school. In between my usual unsavory activities, I actually attended my high school. And one of my best friends and I, we’d introduce each other to different items of pop culture. At least, I’d attempt to, he’d rarely open up to anything. On the other hand, he introduced me to several things, like Wu-Tang Clan, Megadeth without Dave Mustaine’s douchery and, my favorite guitarist, Buckethead (Hey, if you read this post, wanna score one of my movies? *grin*). After exposing him to Oldboy (Park, 2003), this old-schoolGodzilla fan expresses anticipation for the North American release of another South Korean picture called The Host. This was before Stephanie Meyer used that name for another of her novels, so I had no bad connotation with the name and I got interested but never  got around to seeing it in theaters.

After attempting to find a ‘working’ copy for four years, I move to 2010, when I find one in the library and figure ‘meh, I’m game, yo.’ What followed was a story that I could not stop watching until the end.
The movie follows the Park family, who seem to be barely making it through life by working a snack-bar near the Han River. Our protagonist, Gang-du (the immensely talented Song Kang-ho), helps his father Hee-bong (Byong Hee-bong – whose appearance really comes off to be as a Korean John Huston) deliver the beer and octopus legs to the groups of people who come by the river everyday. Of course, Gang-du is sort of dim and eats some of the food or just screws up orders. Worst, he’s in charge of his daughter, Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seong), the mother being nowhere in sight. Hyun-seo tolerates her situation but doesn’t hide his displeasure with it. It’s the usual single father-estranged child plotline. Sprinkled with an alcoholic brother who doesn’t care about anything anymore Nam-il (Park Hae-il).
The family’s situation is not all that bad, though. They do have a sister who is a national archer, Nam-joo (and is portrayed by the beautiful Bae Doona, so I give that a plus). Except her last televised performance is sort of a letdown to her following. And the situation goes back to bad when a huge monster comes out from the Han River and devastates the place, eating everyone in sight and destroying the park…
Wait, let’s back up. This series of events was put into play 6 years earlier when a US army doctor – played by Scott Wilson, whom I recognized from another favorite horror-comedy Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, old folks’ll recognize from In Cold Blood and everybody else would recognize from the current television hit The Walking Dead – forces his assistant to dump a significant amount of formaldehyde into the Han River. Apparently that formaldehyde got on something and left a pretty bad situation for the people in the above clip.
Especially the Park family when Hyun-seo is kidnapped by the creature and every survivor from the Han River incident is quarantined by the government. The same government responsible for this fiasco. They’re held this way until Gang-du receives a call from his daughter (who ironically earlier on complained about he cell’s service), figures out she’s alive and tries get the rest of the family to escape the center, battle the monster and attempt to save their daughter and the young friend she found in her captivity as well.
It’s unique story of the kind where the Japanese people might find themselves on their own and have to deal with Mothra or Godzilla on their own, if only for the sake that they are the only compassionate ones in the picture. The Park family gets taken advantage of all throughout this conflict but they also show their wit and companionship to be a strength among them. The genre mixing (horror, comedy, drama, thriller, action) is not as obvious when watching it – it doesn’t go onto parody. Instead, it layers it all into one so that the conventions blend together and allow for us to see satire and commentary on South Korea’s handling of things and on how people in general react to exaggeration.
Part of the humor comes from the fact the monster is just as much a screw-up as the Park family is. Just look at his movements, he’s slipping and sliding, rolling and tumbling all over the place. Can’t even stand up straight. But he’s still a killer and he’s still got some bad intentions for the people of the town – among which a rumor goes around that the monster is a host of a deadly virus…

The colors of the movie, while present in the initial Han River park attack, are eventually washed away, leaving some really good shots for when the family is fighting the creature or the government, or the daughter is trying to find a new passage of escape, but also mainly focusing on the quieter moments between the family, when they put their differences and arguments aside if only to make sure they have one more member still alive to argue with. The real character of the movie is its bittersweetness, its eventual acceptance of circumstances which make their mission harder but still move them to push on. This mood especially comes to its peak in the end, but whatever’s left of the characters (Oh yeah, it’s not gory at all, but this is still a very violent movie) have grown up from their journey and have a new sense of pride. They’re still a family after going through the grinder.

What is of course bothersome is that eventually in the two hour runtime, we get to a grinding pace around the latter half of the movie, when the movie seems to just go whatever direction it pleases – Politics, Social, Monster Mash – but takes its sweet ass time instead of directly addressing itself. It should also be pointed out that Bong Joon-ho is one of the most ambitious filmmakers I’ve seen around while I was alive, but sometimes he’d rather not give more atmospheric adhesive to his many genre mixes as he should and as a result, we got some slightly inconsistent work in all of his career, from Memories of Murder to Mother to this year’s Snowpiercer. Still the ambition and dedication is enough to admire him as an inspiration in my filmmaking. And for what it’s worth, he does constantly juggle the drama, comedy, and horror of The Host very elegantly.
Not to say it kills the movie. It just makes me realize it’s not perfect. I still love watching it regardless.
Yeah, I like some pretty amoral movies but I also really enjoy movies with heart. I enjoy movies that don’t like making that heart too apparent even more. The Host happens to be the in the latter and so it really gets an appreciation from me. It’s a monster movie, but it’s still a family movie too. I’d probably have no trouble watching it with kids of my own (well, maybe it might scare them but at least there’s no big blood or any nudity in it) and for the record, it is one of the few movies I’ve been able to get my father (not a cinephile in the slightest) to sit down and watch with me (I can count them on both hands and cut off fingers).  Yep. That’s a movie, I tell ya. A warm intense monster chase through a South Korean park. That’s a movie for my good sensibility.

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