Friday, April 4, 2008

The Host

Bong Joon-ho's The Host (2006) is about a big, slimy monster. As such, it's the best film of its kind I've seen. On one level, it is a political allegory in the spirit of Joe Dante and George Romero, but it also works on a much less highfalutin' level as a story about characters we come to root for.

The film opens in a morgue in South Korea where an American pathologist instructs his assistant to empty bottle after bottle of formaldehyde down the drain. When the assistant objects that the drain leads directly into the Han River, the pathologist repies, "The Han River is very broad, so let's be broad-minded about this."

Long story short, a big, slimy monster comes out of the river and attacks humanity; but even before that, the Park family has other problems to deal with. Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) works in his father's food stand and can't afford to buy his daughter, Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seong), a new cell phone. His brother, Nam-il (Park Hae-il), is a university graduate but can't find a job, and his sister, Nam-joo (Bae Doona), is a champion archer who freezes up during a big competition.

Here, as in Bong's previous feature, Memories of Murder (2003), the director seems to be allergic to subtlety. When Hyun-seo is abducted by the monster and presumed dead, the family shouts and wails and rolls on the floor. Behind the camera, Bong has a taste for lots of camera movement and suspenseful slow motion shots, which are better suited to a film like this than a Korean Mystic River (2003).

If, watching Memories of Murder, one wondered whether the parallels between the story and George W. Bush's reign of terror were deliberate (the movie was based on a true story that happened in the mid-1980's), The Host leaves no doubt. The American military quarantines the area around the Han River and anyone who came into direct contact with the monster, believing they've been exposed to a new virus. When no evidence of a virus can be found, the Americans refuse to let facts get in their way. To combat the monster, the U.S. okays the use of a chemical suggestively named "Agent Yellow," which inspires student protests.

The film has been praised by reviewers as an up-to-the-minute allegory about the times we live in, yet there's something about this tactic of using science fiction to talk about the present that makes my Susan Sontag senses tingle. In her essay "Against Interpretation," Sontag takes the position that sometimes a tank in a Bergman film is just a tank. To ignore The Host's political implications would be an act of denial, but once we start talking about the virus as a metaphor for WMDs, the text becomes divorced from its meanings. And that's when critics start praising horrible films, like Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978), because they agree with the filmmakers' politics.

What I liked best about the movie is its energy. The problem with most Hollywood action movies is that they get bogged down in the special effects, but Bong does a good job of keeping the plot moving.

The Host was a massive hit in South Korea and it's easy to see why: at bottom, this is a superior popular entertainment. It's about characters defined by their strengths and weaknesses who come together in order to pursue a common goal. It's very satisfying.

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