One of the limits I set myself for the challenge was no Japanese cinema, as I watch a fair amount of that anyway so it seemed a bit of a cop out to count those. I did however want to break myself in gently (I’ve been watching a lot of fairly intense documentaries lately) so when I found a South Korean monster movie in a sale it seemed the perfect choice.
Disturbingly the opening scene (setting up the toxic pollution to create the mutation monster) is apparently based on a real incident and it sets up the tone for the rest of the movie. A thread of looking askance at the US military and the paternalistic (and, its is implied, abusive) relationship between the US and South Korea. It is, however, done with a light touch (mostly ‘Agent Yellow’ is a fitting if unsubtle reference point) which pokes ridicule at both sides. Our ‘heroes’ spend more time battling bureaucracy than the monster – for that matter the Korean authorities and US military presence seem more interested in containing an apparent virus than actually containing/destroying the titular monster.
The Host can be described as both a monster movie and a political satire, yet neither of these elements are the heart of the film. The film is more about family, the way in which adults cling to and are trapped by their childhood and teenaged dreams and behavioural patterns, while equally circumstances force children to act like adults when they shouldn’t have to. (And on that note Hyan-seo is probably the bravest, most resourceful and ‘grown up’ character in the film for all that she’s a school girl)
The characters and their actions seem very real, people are flawed and foolish and brave and cowardly all at once. Emotions are messy things; grief and anger are raw and clumsy. Despite the light hearted moments throughout the film, it manages to avoid going for obvious laughs. For example, early in the film one of the hazard-suited scientists strides across a hall crowded with people taking refuge from the first attack, only to fall over – rather than being played for laughs it is a moment of simple embarrassment, in front of a crowd of people too scared and drained to laugh. Other moments have a darker humour, such as the grim, petty reality of hiring a gang of thugs to break Gang-du out of the hospital, following a daring escape with the petty list of thing being included on the invoice – sort of like getting the car repaired with all the hidden extras that you can’t afford: except when they take your credit card for payment you don’t get it back.
The creature effects are excellently exercised, although less is generally more with monsters, the sheer frequency on which we encounter the creature creates a mundanity that seems to make it more part of the film rather than merely the point of it. As should be expected from the WETA effects people (all power to them for becoming the go to people for creature effects without having to decamp form New Zealand to Hollywood) the creature appears both incredibly natural while being determinedly not. The grace with which it moves through water and the air as it jumps is admirable, while on land it becomes something vicious and unstable, its mutation and corruption, clear and revolting to see.
Most of all it is clearly a film made with a great deal of love and care. It wears its cultural and filmic influences on its sleeve but alongside that is a determination to make something different, something uniquely of its own culture not just a rehash of what’s gone before. And that can only be a good thing.