Monday, 23 February 2009

The Host

Lowdown: A monster terrorizes the streets of Seoul and steers a dysfunctional family into action.
Last week the news showed Hillary Clinton, the new USA Secretary of State, arriving at South Korea to what seems to have been a very warm reception. That same night we watched The Host, a Korean film from 2006, and it made us think that maybe Koreans are not as in love with the USA as Clinton’s diplomatic reception might have indicated.
The Host’s opening scene shows an American guy bullying a Korean colleague into pouring lots of poisonous material down the drain, knowing fully well the poison would go down to the river that runs through Seoul. Apparently, this opening scene is based on a true incident.
Next thing we know there is a monster in Seoul’s river, and what is initially some sort of a pet attraction gets out of the water to lunch on some of the many people casually frequenting the river bank.
The focus of attention turns unto a specific extended family that runs a kiosk by the river. As we are introduced to the family we discover it is quite dysfunctional (but in the same way most families are): one is rather dumb, the other is afraid to take the initiative, the mother is missing, etc. Overall, they are pretty incompetent. That family is hit hard when its young daughter gets kidnapped by the river monster; at first they all think she’s dead, but then she calls her father’s mobile and reports she’s in some sewage facility that acts as the monster’s lair.
Naturally, the family wants to go and save her, but they can’t. American authorities have released a warning claiming the monster carries some deadly virus, and our family is being kept under medical arrest for its contact with the monster. No one listens to their pleas as they incompetently explain their situation to the authorities, leading them to utter frustration.
So our family takes matters into its own hands in order to rescue their young one. They need to fight the authorities, whom Americans lead by the nose, and they also need to fight greedy and generally indifferent members of the public. Plus the monster.
The Host turns out to be quite a different monster movie to what one has been conditioned to expect from monster movies. For a start, although there are scenes of the monster creating mayhem, there is no gore and no “make you jump in your seat for the sake of making you jump in your seat” scenes. Although I won’t recommend The Host as a kids’ movie (far from it), things are pretty cleverly done here and the emphasis is not on the monster but rather on the family sorting itself out plus the social aspects of it all. Despite the monster, The Host is closer to being a film about the journey our family goes through than a monster film. And in The Host’s background, but very strongly so, is the case against American imperialism and the will of Koreans to regain control over their own future; I ended up wondering who The Host title was referring to.
Best scene: The hero father breaks out of a hospital where he was lobotomized to remove the deadly virus from his frontal lobe. Once he’s out of the front door, he finds himself in the middle of a nowhere field, where the security people are busy barbecuing some sausages. The contrast between his struggle and the rest’s indifference can not be made any clearer.
Technical assessment: When one thinks of foreign films one thinks low production values, but that is not the case here. Although the special effects are not Hollywood slick, the DVD’s picture is very good (despite the frequent darker settings) and the sound is creative and aggressive, featuring nice elements such as directional dialog and even the occasional dialog in the surrounds. Normally avoided by mainstream Hollywood productions for fear of destructing the crowds, it worked astonishingly well on my partner during the main monster mayhem scenes.
Overall: Not the best film ever, but a film that definitely gains a lot by coming from a culture out of which we are not used to seeing many films. I guess this makes The Host an extraordinary experience, earning it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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