Pros:Beautifully staged action sequence. Sharp characters. Goofy sense of humor.
Cons:Conclusion doesn't work. Government corruption story is out of place.
The Bottom Line: Despite getting lost at a few points, The Host is an extremely entertaining motion picture.
Not many people would consider a South Korean horror film their idea of a fun night at the movies. And that is a shame because Joon-ho Bong's The Host (known as Gwoemul in South Korea) is a film that so many people would enjoy. It may come from a director that most people never heard of, or actors that most audiences haven't seen before, but it is made with so much artistry and unrelenting joy that it feels like an expertly made Hollywood film that could have come from the likes of Steven Spielberg. Unfortunately, language barriers have limited this film to only 70 theatres nationwide, but it is absolutely worth making the trip to the downtown art theater to catch this lively thriller.
After a silly setup involving chemical spillage, we are transported to an ordinary, sunny day in Seoul. Park Hee-Bong (Byun Hee-Bong) is a elderly man who owns a snack shop on the banks of the Han river. Working in the snack shop is his lazy, blundering son Gang-du (Song Gang-ho) whose wife abandoned the family long ago. One day, a gigantic sea creature appears out of nowhere and begins eating all the tourists and residents in sight. One of those eaten is Gang-du's daughter Hyun-Seo (Ah-sung Ko). As the family grieves over her loss, Gang-du gets a mysterious phone call from Hyun-Seo, learning that she is not dead but trapped. Gang-du and his family set out to rescue her from the sea creature.
The most notable thing about The Host is how much fun it has developing the individual family members. Also on board are Gang-Du's siblings; unemployed college graduate Nam-Il (Hae-Il Park) and expert archery competitor Nam-joo (Bae Du-na),. Together, the group makes for a very amusing dysfunctional family. There are a number of emotional issues simmering underneath, and they all come out here. It's almost as if the sea creature attack is their own version of a typical American Thanksgiving dinner. The most interesting relationships are drawn between Gang-du and his seemingly disappointed father, and then between Gang-du and his pitying siblings. The way the family emotions work themselves out in humorous style throughout the course of the film is reminiscent of last years indie winner Little Miss Sunshine. Just imagine a large sea creature chasing Steve Carell.
The Host owes plenty to the classic monster movies of the past and it does them justice. The opening attack by the creature is beautifully staged, with crowds of people attempting to flee the scene, many of them unsuccessful. Gong-du attempts to battle the villain, using a variety of handy props to hurl in its direction. Sure, the creature is a bit silly, but that only reinforces the films knowing homage to the beloved genre. While the proceedings are mostly goofy, the action scenes are incredibly well put together, avoiding the rapid cutting technique that plagues modern Hollywood action directors. Instead, Bong chooses large shots that capture all of the action at once.
The Host is a fun ride, but there are a few missteps along the way. Showing us the exact location of the girl is a big mistake, as it takes away some of the mystery that could have been created otherwise. Also problematic is Bongs decision to follow the girls exploits as the creatures prisoner. This only takes away from the interesting far more interesting moments between the family members. The film tries to get a little too political for its own good. While an examination of US-South Korea relations is certainly a timely topic, it just doesnt work here and feels unnecessary in a film that at 119 minutes already runs long for its genre.
The film has been praised for avoiding the sentimentalism of Spielberg, most notably in War of the Worlds. This is an odd comparison, because if anything, The Host has an overly sentimental ending with a sudden twist that does not work at all with the overall goofy nature of the movie. It forces the audience to accept something we don't really care about. Sure the end of War of the Worlds was ridiculously schmaltzy, but at least there was reason to care about father and son reuniting. In The Host, Bong attempts mixing a melancholy ending with ultimate happiness, but the result is a final scene so contrived that even Spielberg at his worst could never hope to achieve.
Despite getting lost at a few points, The Host is an extremely entertaining motion picture. Joon-ho Bong displays a keen eye for perfectly setting up an action sequence and perfectly balances exciting suspenseful moments with a series of comic moments exploring the dysfunctional family. His talented cast finds the perfect note for the characters, never allowing them to become so silly that all sense of reality is lost. American filmmakers have plenty to learn from this film, and American audiences would do well to embrace this film and the many others like it that come from overseas and struggle to find distribution.
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