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Review © Alex Apple, 2007.

Directed by Joon-ho Bong, 2006, 119 mins. Starring Du-na Bae, Kang-ho Song, Hae-il Park, Hie-bong Byeon, and Ah-sung Ko.

When I was just a little boy, I was mostly fascinated by one thing: monsters. I was an easily scared little boy. (Not much has changed. ;-)) I was haunted - and still am, to some extent - by a large picture of a ghost in the obviously-titled Hamlyn Book of Ghosts . I think it was of a spectral fisherman, though I can't be sure now almost thirty years after the fact; what I do see with remarkable recognition is the evil beam on its face and the horrible blue-green tones of the watercolour. And so it was that I gravitated towards Doctor Who, where I was particularly terrified by the Autons and Sontarans, and then I found Godzilla and the rest is history.

And, really, once you've exhausted the seemingly endless supply of Godzilla movies (29, at the last count), is there really much room in the market for another one? I suppose you could argue that the Alien series are monster movies, although they dabble with various genres like horror, action and snoreathon. There's very few other modern movies (King Kong, certainly, maybe Jurassic Park) which deal with monsters as the main deal, rather than as a side dish like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings do. Perhaps that's because monsters are seen as cheesy, an inevitable side effect of unconvincing special effects which often rely on stop motion or (worse) a tall guy in a rubber suit. But since the advent of CG - and the aforementioned Lord of the Rings movies, which took monster-dom to a new level - perhaps the time is now right for the monster movie genre to emerge, screaming, from the water again, ready to stomp Tokyo. Or wherever.

At least, that's what Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong seemed to think when he took on The Host, following on from his success with 2003's Memories of Murder. Reuniting the double-punch team of Du-na Bae and Kang-ho Song, last seen together in the majestic Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, the movie is not unreminiscent of some of the more recent Godzilla movies (Environmental catastrophe? Check! Watery origins? Check! Lots of stomping about? Check! Kids in danger? Check!) and as such not terribly original, but somehow The Host keeps its freshness despite its rather cheesy plotting and not-thoroughly-convincing CGI. And, for the record, at the time of writing it's the highest-grossing Korean movie of all time...


Gang-du Park is a rather lazy, sleepy and unambitious man who lives with his dad Hie-bong running a food stand by the side of the Han river. He has a daughter, Hyeun-seo, who dotes on her aunt, international archer Nam-joo. Completing the family is drunkard college graduate Nam-il. One day in mid-2006, one of their customers complains about an unsatisfactory order; as Gang-du takes over some complimentary beer to placate them, a crowd of people at the edge of the water are staring at a bizarre creature hanging from the nearby Han River Bridge. As it slides into the water and approaches them, they start throwing food at it to make it react, which it does with a vengeance; about the size of a truck, it jumps out of the water and runs into the nearby park, causing scenes of utter carnage as it feasts on the locals.

Panicked about his daughter, Gang-du returns to the stand and grabs Hyeun-seo's hand, and they run. Where, they're not sure, as the monster seems to be everywhere; in the chaos, Gang-du trips and loses hold of Hyeun-seo - to see her grabbed by the fiend and dragged into the water.

It's actually quite a remarkable opening set-piece - from the start there's no coyness about showing the beast, which even for a low-budget (albeit WETA-created) CGI creature has a remarkable fluidity about it. From here on in, though, as the Parks deal with the enormity of their loss as well as having to contend with the government clearup and cover-up, the film starts to lose a little focus.

The monster is deemed to be carrying a deadly virus. The military move in, and Gang-du is subjected to a number of humiliating tests to ascertain whether or not he is a carrier. Nonetheless, in the middle of the night he receives a phone call from the terrified Hyeun-seo, saying she's alive but trapped in a sewer with a few others. Gang-du tries to raise the alarm, but the police and doctors believe he's delusional.

With the help of some organised thugs who take Hie-bong's life savings as payment, the Parks escape from the hospital and go searching for the thirteen-year-old...

You can see why this movie has been so successful. For a start, although it lacks a female love interest for a change, the search for a child is usually a box-office draw. That, and a massive monster, obviously. Yet, despite the danger of a cheese-fest, within The Host beats a heart as black as the waters of the Han river. Yes, the opening and closing thirds of the movie are (almost) as predictable as you might expect, but when the movie settles down and stops trying to be funny (the humour is at roughly an 8-year-old level) there is a section which is actually pretty grim. As Gang-du is subjected to unnecessary hospital tests, we presume both Nam-joo and Nam-il to be dead or incapacitated, leaving the girl, trapped in a twenty foot high culvert with no ladder, to her own devices. And, when the beast returns and empties its stomach of half-digested human remains, things do not look good.

This isn't a horror movie, for sure, and its darkness is much tempered to remain multiplex friendly, but there's more here than you might expect. There's a clear anti-American slant, for a start - the Americans are the ones blamed for creating the monster in the first place, as well as muscling in on the situation when they get annoyed at the Korean handling of it, before bungling things themselves. And, you could argue, just like Godzilla was a product of the atomic age, The Host is very much a result of concern for the recent turn of world events, as well of desire for preservation of the natural environment.

The Host is by no means a perfect movie; the director seems to focus more on the performance of the monster than his actors. Kang-ho Song carries much of the movie, showing the same sort of range he displayed as the devastated, murderous Park in Sympathy for Mr Vengeance. Du-na Bae is astonishingly under-used; she barely utters a word and looks frumpy as hell. Ah-sung Ko's Hyeung-seo is, frankly, somewhat irritating and falls into cute kid rather than accomplished young actor territory. Plaudits, though, for the mutated fish-like monster, which moves with a tremendous fluidity and only crosses the line into requiring a large suspension of disbelief right at the movie's climax.

Yet, despite its flaws and plotholes, The Host is at least a good stab at a modern monster movie. There's a clearly signposted sequel opportunity at the end - two, in fact - and the cynic in me just wonders how much the producers were keeping an eye on selling on the remake rights; there's nothing in the movie which is distinctively Korean, and you can imagine the movie taking place just as easily in New York, or Chicago, or San Francisco...

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment: 8/10
Chills: 6/10. Some nicely tense moments
Sex: 0/10, unless you like fishy birth scenes, in which case, a very brief 10/10
Gore: 4/10. There's a couple of particularly gruesome scenes
Violence: 11/10. Major killage!
Fish faces: 2
Bad American actors: about 3. All rubbish.
Possibility of 2010 release of Godzilla vs The Host : fair to middling

Films in a Similar Style: Pretty much any monster movie you care to name

*** Recommended ***

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The Host Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood Apple logo on it.

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2007

Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Joon-ho Bong
Du-na Bae
Kang-ho Song


http://www.thehost.co.kr/ - official site, in Korean
http://www.hostmovie.com/ - international official site, currently just a placeholder with the promise of more to come
http://www.hancinema.net/korean_movie_The_Host.php - all sorts of info, articles and publicity shots at the Korean movie database
http://www.cinematical.com/2006/09/13/tiff-interview-the-host-director-bong-joon-ho/ - interview with the director about the movie
http://www.strangehorizons.com/reviews/2006/12/joonho_bongs_th.shtml - perceptive review by Jonathan McCalmont
http://www.lovehkfilm.com/panasia/host.htm - another interesting review at LoveHKFilm.

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