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The Host

A Monster Movie with a Message

Directed and co-written by Joon-ho Bong (Memories of Murder, Barking Dogs Never Lie), The Host ("Gwoemul," literally "monster" in Korean), a monster-as-political-metaphor horror/thriller from South Korea, arrives on American shores a few short months after breaking box office records in South Korea that saw it gross more than $85 million dollars.

Outside of South Korea, The Host premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, eventually appearing at the Toronto, Tokyo and New York film festivals. Cahiers du cinema’s top ten list for 2006 ranked The Host third. While those accolades and box office numbers are certainly impressive, should moviegoers give a South Korean horror film a chance? Sure, but only if you like your monster movies with political subtext.

Slow, dim-witted, and possibly narcoleptic, Gang-Du Park (Kang-ho Song) only stirs from his trance-like state when his thirteen-year old daughter, Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko), returns from elementary school. When he isn’t promising Hyun-seo a new cell phone with the meager savings he earns from working with his father, Hie-bong (Hie-bong Byeon), Gang-Du is usually asleep at the register or snacking from the food stand’s supplies. While Gang-Du delivers an order to a customer picnicking by the nearby Han River, Hie-bong and Hyun-seo watch Gang-Du’s younger sister, Nam-Joo (Du-na Bae), compete in a national archery competition on television. Nam-Joo hesitates at a crucial moment and loses her chance at a gold medal (she finishes third).

Nearby, onlookers spot a dark, teardrop shaped object hanging from a bridge over the Han River. The object falls into the water, swims ashore, and out pops a mutated monster eager for human-sized snacks. During the ensuing panic, Gung-Du watches as the monster kidnaps Hyun-seo and flees into the sewers. The government orders civilians to evacuate the area. Gung-Du’s unemployed brother, Nam-il (Hae-il Park), shows up at the evacuation center, only to discover moments later that he’s been quarantined for coming into contact with the survivors of the attack. The government claims the monster is carrying a new, deadly virus. As the family mourns Hyun-seo, Gung-Du receives a call from Hyun-seo’s cell phone. Gung-Du and his family decide to escape the center and rescue her.

Writer/director Bong wanted a "realistic" monster for The Host but only had $10 million dollars for production and post-production (i.e., special effects). Given budget constraints, it's not surprising that the onscreen results aren’t impressive. The truck-sized monster looks like an unbalanced tadpole with four legs and a tail. Bong also decided to show moviegoers the monster early on and often in the full light of day. While showing the monster in full daylight runs counter to genre expectations, it also means that the special effects have to withstand careful scrutiny from moviegoers expecting Hollywood-quality effects. The monster in The Host doesn't have the weight, volume, and texture that a large animal would have in the real world. It's never convincing enough for moviegoers to suspend their disbelief for more than a few seconds at a time.

Unfortunately, The Host is everything the titular monster isn't. The Host is slow, sluggish, overlong, and often unfocused. The monster-as-metaphor (for American imperialism) is unsubtle, heavy-handed (e.g., the government decides to spray the monster with something called “Agent Yellow”, an obvious reference to the use of Agent Orange by the United States during the Vietnam War), and, ultimately, trite. The pervasive Anti-Americanism is only slightly minimized by the potshots at South Korean bureaucracy, the South Korean government’s willingness to take its lead from the United States, and a dig about unemployed college grads who once fought for democratization getting shafted in the resulting laissez-faire environment.

The Host isn't the first time that an Asian country has been forced to vanquish a monster created by the United States (far from it, actually). Godzilla got there first more than fifty years ago in 1954. Godzilla was either the American A-bomb personified, cathartic release for the Japanese losing World War II, Toho Studios’ attempt to profit from ideas “borrowed” from Ray Harryhausen's first stop-motion effort, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (released in 1953), or all of the above. The Host’s unoriginal premise is the first sign (the plodding execution is the other) that all those accolades and box-office success in South Korea and elsewhere are due primarily to its anti-Americanism (which, to be fair, may be deserved), and not much else.

Rating: 3 out 5 stars