The Host (2006) / Sci Fi-Action
aka Gwoemul

MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG-13 for violence, scary images and language
Running Time: 119 min.

Cast: Song Kang-ho, Byeon Hie-bong, Park Hae-il, Bae Du-na, Ko Ah-sung, David Joseph Alselmo, Spencer Jay Kim, Paul Lazar, Clinton Morgan
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Screenplay: Baek Chul-hyun, Bong Joon-ho, Ha Jun-won
Review published December 12, 2006

Back on my birthday (August 14), I received this letter from a reader of my site which I haven't forgotten:

Dear Vincent Leo,

My name is Peter, an ordinary student from New Zealand who enjoys watching movies.

I have always enjoyed your reviews and over the last year since I found your web page, it has somehow become the standard by which I measure quality of movies before I go and see them.

It's always enjoyable and helpful reading your reviews and I will continue to do that in the future.

I am originally from Korea, and I had a chance to watch a recent release called "the host". I was so impressed by the quality of the movie that I wondered what rating you gave it. But I see that you have not seen it... I just wanted to recommend this movie and I wonder what you think of it. I truly believe that this movie surpasses all Hollywood blockbusters that came out in the last year or two in every way.

I know it's a bit random to write to you like this, but I can assure you will never regret seeing this movie.

Anyway, have a great day and I look forward to seeing your reviews on future movies to come.

Regards

Peter

p.s. by the way, I have nothing to do with the movie in terms of production or marketing etc. I am just an ordinary moviegoer.

While it was a nice birthday gift to receive such a complimentary letter, it was just as much a pleasure to finally be able to see the film that Peter recommended to me, The Host, which finally became available for me to view nearly four months later.  Peter, you're right, I not only do not regret seeing this movie, I am already recommending it to good friends of mine, who I know will enjoy this genre-busting film in every way.

Now, before I start sounding like a hype machine here, let me just state that The Host is not going to win any awards for cinematic excellence, as it is, at its core, a campy creature feature made strictly for fun, action, excitement and escapism.  In many ways, it is reminiscent in tone, spirit, and execution to the 1990 American film, Tremors, for effectively capturing the joys of watching old monster movies, brought up to today's level as far as special effects and action montages.  Although I do think that The Host is a good film, you have to have a little bit of love for knowingly bad movies to gain the most appreciation for it, because it is a b-movie through and through.  However, glorious b-movies that exceed expectations are quite rare in these days of schlock like Godzilla and Jurassic Park 3, so when one comes out that effectively captures the spirit of fun that monster movies hold, it is worth noting among genre buffs.

Interestingly enough, the inspiration for The Host was based on a real-life incident from the year 2000, whereby a civilian working for the U.S. Military ordered the dumping about 80 to 100 liters of formaldehyde down the drain, which ended up being released into the Han River in South Korea, -- a primary source of drinking water for millions.

The film opens with the release of many chemicals into the drain which flows directly into the Han.  Flash forward several years, and we follow the Park family, whose Gang-du is idle yet again in the running of the family store near the river.  His attention is soon diverted by the sight of a strange creature hanging off of the bridge nearby, which the many spectators mistake as a dolphin.  They don't mistake it for anything they've ever seen before soon enough, as the giant creature mounts an attack on the people idling nearby, Included in the many victims of the attack is Gang-du's young daughter, Nam-joo. 

Meanwhile, fears are raised in the area due to what the government perceives as the outbreak of a deadly virus, mandating that anyone exposed to the creature be quarantined and studied.  Gang-du, who actually had the creature's blood spray in is face, becomes the prime culprit for study, but when he receives a mysterious cell phone call from Nam-joo herself, he escapes, pulling together his family to get revenge on the vile creature and, hopefully rescue his beloved daughter.

The Host isn't a perfect film, as it is a bit on the long side for a monster movie, and the virus storyline isn't as arresting (the SARS outbreak of 2002-3 still seems quite resonant in the Asian psyche) as the actual hunt for the giant monster, but all things said, it's about as enjoyable a ride as there is in the action/sci fi/horror/thriller/adventure/comedy/drama department.  With the exception of a lack of obligatory romance, this is very much a Hollywood-type production, emphasizing special effects and action sequences first and foremost, while underneath, there is a time-honored Spielbergian formula of a dysfunctional family that must come together in their hour of crisis. 

The special effects, made by the American production house known as The Orphanage, are quite good, even if it isn't always completely convincing, somewhat similar to the appearance of the alien creatures in Men in Black.  The Orphanage is the special effects crew that worked on such films as The Day After Tomorrow, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and Superman Returns, so you can easily guess why the production values are top-notch Hollywood caliber.

However, this isn't just a dumb action vehicle, as there are many political and environmental subtexts underneath the surface, as well as more derisive fears of the US military presence in certain parts of the world, who appear to be callous to the needs and concerns of peoples in other nations.  The sometimes-political nature enhances the overall emphasis of the film, giving it the weight necessary to be a cautionary tale underneath, while on the surface, the action is inventive, harrowing and quite riveting, even during the quieter moments.

The tone of the film is tongue-in-cheek, affording us a great deal the disbelief suspension required to make such a farfetched science fiction premise fly.  With action sequences coming at regular intervals, the implausibility factor of the government reactions and the lack of ravenous public outcry and media feeding frenzy never really takes root until once it's all over, but by then, more than enough entertainment value will have been had to overlook the half-baked nature of it.  Also commendable is the fact that we actually like the dysfunctional family at the heart of the film, and root for them to come out on top against their formidable foes: the mutated beast, the government agencies, and the fearful public looking for scapegoats for their anxieties.

While it is certainly not going to be a film for everyone, if you're a fan of action, horror, science fiction, or just plain old camp, you'll get a great deal of mileage out of The Host, one of the most purely entertaining monster films since the original Jurassic Park

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo