A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 556 – The Host

The Host – September 7th, 2011

I have probably asked Andy what this is every time I’ve looked at our movie list. It wasn’t something I recognized and his description of it wouldn’t stick in my head. Probably because I’m pretty sure his description was usually something very short, like “It’s a Korean monster movie” or “It’s a Korean horror movie.” And to be honest, that just doesn’t grab me. Nothing about that tells me what the movie’s story is or how it’s done. Really, that’s a very generic description, and as I’m not a horror fan and he didn’t give me much in the way of details about the monster, it had very little to set it apart in my mind. I thrive on details. Telling me something is “a period drama” or “a musical” isn’t going to get me excited either. There had to be a reason why this Korean monster movie and not another, right? But without details, how am I supposed to know that reason?

Turns out the reason is that it’s a very well done monster movie with a sense of humor I’m beginning to consider a staple in Korean movies. It’s not a comedy. Far from it. But it has comedic aspects to it that would feel bizarrely out of place in most other serious monster movies. And make no mistake, this is also a serious movie. It has Things To Say about the government and pollution and the United States military. And the monster kills people. This isn’t some goofy monster that just causes panic or something. It doesn’t destroy buildings but leave the people unharmed. No. It kills people and eats them and saves some to savor later. It belches out the bones of its prey after digestion, leaving no doubt that it’s a killer. It is a malicious force and the movie sets that out right at the beginning. There is no question.

Still, there is humor here. Mostly from the main cast and their interactions. The Park family runs a snack cart near the river, serving up fried squid, instant ramen and beer to people relaxing on the riverbank. The family consists of the owner of the cart, Park Hee-bong, his three adult children (unemployed college grad Nam-il, archery champion Nam-joo and lazy eldest son Gang-du) and his eldest son’s pre-teen daughter, Hyun-seo. The whole family loves Hyun-seo, but derides Gang-du for always being asleep and for not even attempting to do anything with his life. Really though, the whole family has problems. There’s Gang-du, obviously, who spends all his time working at his father’s cart and sleeping. Nam-il finished college (paid for by his father’s tireless work at the snack cart) but all he’s done since is drink. And Nam-joo has the makings of a gold medalist, but hesitates every time and always lands lower than she should. Hyun-seo obviously loves her family, but is exasperated by her father and uncle and saddened by her aunt’s failure to live up to her potential. And the movie takes the time to introduce all these characters to the audience and make them at least a little sympathetic as individuals and more sympathetic as a family. And then it has the monster kidnap Hyun-seo.

The monster is created early in the movie, well before we meet the Park family. An American military doctor tells a Korean assistant that the formaldehyde bottles in the morgue are too dusty and to dump all of it. The assistant argues that dust on the bottles doesn’t mean they have to dump it all and that the chemicals are dangerous and shouldn’t just be dumped. But the doctor insists and so the formaldehyde is dumped down the drain and into the Han river in Seoul. I suspect it’s meant to be more than just formaldehyde. I have a vivid recollection from high school of being told to be careful mixing formaldehyde with other chemicals. And given the results, it seems like it would make sense for it to be a combination of noxious chemical liquids that produces the giant fish monster that is the basis for the movie. Formaldehyde alone just doesn’t work for me, so even though it’s the only chemical mentioned by name in the English subtitles, I’m going to run with “formaldehyde et. al.” to describe what gets dumped. Formaldehyde alone would be boring.

So this big fish monster with legs comes up out of the river one day and attacks a ton of people hanging out on the shore. Gang-du runs, tries to fight it along with a American dude, sees it kill people by the dozen, then tries to grab his daughter to keep her out of harm’s way and finds that he’s grabbed a similarly dressed stranger by accident. The monster has Hyun-seo. Everyone who was present for the attack gets quarantined, especially Gang-du, who was in direct contact with the creature. And in the middle of all of this somewhat serious monster movie drama the entire Park family engages in over-the-top hysterics and slapstick fighting while grieving for Hyun-seo. It is one of the stranger things I’ve seen in a movie recently because it just seems so unlike what I expect from the tone of the rest of the movie. And it’s not the first or last time there’s a bit of slapstick comedy tossed into an otherwise serious plot. I’ll just have to make a point of watching more Korean movies to see if it’s a cultural thing I’m just not personally familiar with. I like it! I’m just a little bemused by it.

Anyhow, it turns out that Hyun-seo isn’t dead. She’s been stashed in a sewer for the monster to snack on later. So the family breaks out of the hospital and cashes in everything they have to pay for weapons and a map of the sewer system so they can go find her. Things escalate and one member of the family gets killed. The government bans people from the whole river area and news comes out of the US that the monster transmitted a deadly virus to the American guy Gang-du fought the monster with. It all turns out to be a smokescreen for the Americans to save face after being the cause of the monster’s existence in the first place and the movie’s pretty clear on that. There’s a whole lot going on in this movie, and I’m not just talking about the monster and the action and the family drama. Reading over some analysis done by people native to Korea, it makes me wish I knew more about the culture and country. There’s some very obvious messages, such as the dumping of the formaldehyde (et. al.) in the river and the US lies about the creature. But then there’s some subtle stuff I didn’t pick up on at all. It was an interesting movie, and a well made movie. It also wasn’t at all what I was expecting, which is a good thing, because I was expecting something generic and forgettable and that’s not what I got.

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September 7, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , ,

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