For October, I’ll be watching a bunch of Korean Monster Movies, starting with 2006’s The Host.
Following a Korean family in the midst of a monster attack in Seoul, The Host probably wouldn’t exist without 1954’s Godzilla. Born out of the horrors of the atomic age, the titular Godzilla was a one hundred foot metaphor for the nuclear holocaust, with Japanese director/writer Ishiro Honda building upon public fears in an unexpectedly dark story of destruction and loss. Not only did Godzilla establish the giant-monster genre, it set a number of the genre’s common conventions: a political undertone, an emphasis on human drama, and a “more-is-better” approach to the monster’s screentime. Fifty-two years later, The Host feels like a direct evolution of Godzilla, while doing enough new things to feel original in a genre that, at the time, was increasingly stagnant.
Park Gang-du kinda sucks. Portrayed as slow and completely helpless, he’s the bumbling attendant at his father’s food stand. Despite his general suck-ness, he’s strong-willed, and tries his hardest to provide for his young daughter, Hyun-seo. This all goes horrifically south when a twenty-foot tall mutated fish attacks the city, infects Park with a mysterious virus, and kidnaps Hyun-seo. Without many options, Park and his family embark on a quest to rescue Hyun-seo amidst a military cover-up. The Host manages to find solid footing with this ultimately personal story. In marked contrast to the detached military archetypes commonly seen in this genre, the immediately likable Gang-du family are almost comically unprepared to combat this monstrous threat, propelled mostly by desperation and misplaced confidence. This sense of connection grounds The Host, and gives the sometimes lighthearted tone more emotional resonance than it would have otherwise.
One of the more interesting things about watching The Host was seeing American stereotypes through a foreign lens. Almost universally, Americans are portrayed as controlling, stupid, or just straight-up evil. A lazy American scientist creates the monster in the first place by way of pollution, a testosterone-fueled ex-soldier tries to single-handedly take on the creature (and also manages to get most of the sympathy from the media when he inevitably miserably fails), and the US Army immediately takes control of the entire situation with Orwellian detachment. None of these portrayals are particularly subtle, but I don’t think they’re really meant to be. In 2006, America wasn’t exactly at the height of it’s popularity globally, especially in South Korea, where environmental concerns were raised following a 2000 chemical spill by the US Military. Like many of its predecessors, The Host builds on public fear and dissatisfaction.
Director Bong Joon-ho shows a deft eye for destruction throughout the film, framing the monster’s rampage with a frantic curiosity. From the initial attack, Joon-ho doesn’t stray away from showing the monster. While this undercuts the tension of what exactly the monster is, it mostly serves as a clever callback to traditional monster films like Godzilla. It helps that the monster looks really cool, essentially a giant genetically mutated fish that propels itself with it’s tail. Whatever the case, the film is constantly gripping to watch and visually stunning.
At its essence, The Host is what a modern giant-monster movie should be. There’s a lot of destruction, but a solid human story underlines it with interesting and likable characters. The monster has enough mystery to be interesting, but is never deprived of screen-time. And there’s a smart and biting political undercurrent, skewering American attitudes and foreign policy while raising concerns about environmentalism. The Host is a clever and refreshing refinement of its most successful predecessors, and serves as one of the more successful films in the genre.
Next Week: Dragon Wars: D-War just makes us all really, really sad.
Words by Tom Bunting