The Host (2006)

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Image from Hanguk Yeonghwa: The home of Korean cinema.

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I’ve previously expressed the view that whereas Cloverfield was a hackneyed combination of found footage and monster movie conventions, 10 Cloverfield Lane abandoned the monster movie genre for something far more provocative.

Well, I don’t want to give the impression that conventional monster movies are in themselves bad. The Host offers an example of the third option, between formula and subversion: while if anything far more conventional than Cloverfield, this movie uses genre conventions to tell a genuinely interesting story.

I’ll be clear here; a ‘monster movie’ is not just a movie with monsters. By monster movies, I mean ‘kaiju‘ in Japanese terms (though it is also a thoroughly American genre), movies with big mutated creatures that attack major population centres. While the genre is often very silly, it also offers overt commentary on interrelated topics of industrial society, war, and environmental devastation. The Host plants its feet firmly in this genre territory (while also moonlighting as a family melodrama).

The Host is shameless about being a Big Damn Spectacle. The CGI monster is exquisitely rendered, gnashing teeth and rampaging through Seoul in broad daylight. The cast is a who’s who of Korean talent.

The backstory of the monster’s mutation is politically provocative and explicit; environmental waste left by Those Damn Americans. In an opening scene that sets the comedic tone for the film, an American mortician (Scott Wilson) offers an absurd line of reasoning for dumping formaldehyde: “The Han River is very broad, Mr Kim. Let’s try to be ‘broad-minded’ about this.”

The film wears its leftish anti-Americanism on its sleeve, with every American character broadly and satirically drawn. If the stereotypes seem crude, keep in mind that South Korea remains occupied by US troops who backed a military dictatorship for decades, and the backstory of US troops dumping formaldehyde in the Han River is based on fact.

Yet alongside the broad satire, the film also connects on the sort of human level that can be lost in political didactics. Unlike Cloverfield‘s utterly anonymous cast (can you remember a single character you connected with?), The Host offers characters we care about.

Song Kang-ho plays Park Gang-du, a mentally slow but loving man, the heart of the film (a lovely comic performance, impressively different to Kang-ho’s ‘quiet dignity’ noted in my review of Sympathy for Mister Vengeance). Early in the film, Gang-du’s daughter is abducted by the monster, a powerful moment of slow-motion horror that sets off the narrative trajectory; the nuclear family pursue the threatened child, dealing with obstructive bureaucracy and a far-reaching conspiracy before finally reaching the monster’s lair.

Each family member is a well-drawn type. Grandfather Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong) is a caring if self-important patriarch, at one point boring his family to sleep with a guilt-ridden monologue; Nam-doo (Bae Doona, another star of Sympathy for Mister Vengeance) is a successful archer, an odd celebrity standout in an otherwise working-class family; and finally, my favourite, Nam-il (Park Hae-il), formerly a student radical during the democracy movement, now a cynical alcoholic, educated but left behind by neoliberalism.

Indeed, the film has an ambivalent relationship with the political transformations in a single generation of South Korean society. One one level, the film celebrates post-dictatorship South Korea, with Bae Doona’s celebrity archer representing aspirations of competitive success on the global stage. Yet the film also notes the insecurity left behind by economic reforms (director Bong joon-ho would later direct Snowpiercer, his first English-language film, widely noted for its overt commentary on class society). In an ironic redemptive moment near the end of film, Nam-il trades alcohol for molotov cocktails.

The Host shows there is no shame in genre convention, so long as you have a story and characters that will resonate. Personally, my favourite monster movie.

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