The Host (dir. Bong Joonho): political and social commentary combine with strong characters in monster flick

Bong Joonho, “The Host” (2006)

Often billed as a horror film, “The Host” actually has as much comedy, drama and suspense thriller as it has horror. The emphasis is on one family’s efforts against great obstacles, more human than non-human, to rescue its child from a mutant monster. Hero of the movie, Gangdu, played by Song Kangho, one of South Korea’s top actors, is a most unconventional one: the black sheep of his family, not too bright and dozing off a lot, he seems a pathetic outsider in a society that values worldly achievement and success over human values. When his teenage daughter Hyunseo (Ko Asung) is captured by the scaled-up fish freak, Gangdu becomes single-mindedly determined to save her and rallies his father and two siblings against formidable odds. The family is arrested and imprisoned by government authorities; when they break out, they are declared dangerous and have a huge price on their heads. Together and separately, Gangdu and his siblings undergo trials that often end in failure in their attempts to get Hyungseo back home.

Bong’s direction creates a very moving story about the heroism of individuals, singly and together, in striving to achieve something despite overwhelming social and political resistance against them and repeated failures. Gangdu and his family often act before they think and their planning is more impulsive than considered; a lot of time and effort gets wasted and someone dies before they think of linking Hyunseo’s desperate cellphone calls to her location. There’s a subtext too that criticises South Korea’s subservient relationship to the United States: the monster itself is a creation of an unintended science experiment when a science lab worker is ordered by his American supervisor to pour a mix of chemicals down a sink in violation of lab procedures. The chemicals go untreated into the Han river which flows through Seoul. Years later when the monster starts its rampage through parts of the city, the US military tells the government to detain everyone who’s had contact with the monster under the guise of preventing a virus outbreak. Society is forced into lockdown and people’s rights and freedoms are suppressed. This forces Gangdu and his siblings to become fugitive outsiders in order to rescue Hyunseo. Western audiences at least get the message about how even the mere threat of “terrorism”, biological or other, can serve as an opportunity for governments to clamp down on democracy and what should be the rule of law.

As Gangdu, Song virtually carries the film on his shoulders and gives his comic, clownish character great emotional depth and inner strength that make his feats credible. Dim-witted and lazy he may be but Gangdu often exhibits animal cunning in evading or tricking the authorities. Park Hae-il gives excellent support as Gangdu’s unemployed uni graduate brother who initially looks down on Gangdu but becomes a minor hero in risking his freedom to locate Hyunseo through her cellphone calls and in trying to kill the monster. These characters help to keep the film going during its last hour when the plot sags with Gangdu’s recapture by the authorities and his sister (Bae Duna) knocked cold by the monster.

As in many of Bong’s films, the cinematography is often brilliant with incredible shots of the river and the huge concrete bridge where the monster hides among the pylons. The creature’s habitat becomes an important part of the film’s winding plot which begins and ends near the bridge and makes frequent visits there.

It seems that whenever Bong turns his attention to a particular movie genre, be it horror, murder mystery or whatever, the result always enriches and transcends the genre in some way. The film ends up a subtle critique of South Korean society, its history and its obsession with a certain set of rules and values that don’t make allowances for underdogs or nonconformists. While Bong clearly sympathises with people like Gangdu who operate more on instinct and intuition than on intelligence and who are often at odds with society, his view of society isn’t idealistic and there is irony in the way the monster is finally vanquished: a dangerous chemical Agent Yellow supplied by the US army is needed to weaken it before it can be killed.

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