Friday, September 08, 2006

TIFF 2006: "THE HOST" (Gwoemul)

(Midnight Madness)
2006, South Korea, 119 minutes
Written by Chul-hyun Baek, Jun-ho Bong, Jun-won Ha
Directed by Jun-ho Bong
Cast: Kang-ho Song, Hi-bong Byeon, Hae-il Park, Du-na Bae, Ah-sung Ko

It will surprise some that South Korea’s “The Host” isn’t the world’s first giant tadpole movie—that (dubious) honour would go to Yoshumitso Banno’s “Godzilla Vs. Hedorah”—but it’s surely the best (and not just better than “Yongary”). The stunning FX provided by an international range of talents including San Francisco’s The Orphanage (“Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow”, “Superman Returns”), Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop (duh), and John Cox’s Creature Workshop (“Babe”, “Peter Pan”) breathe virtual life into a rampaging, misunderstood abomination-of-nature like no other. But this is not just another state-of-the-art creature feature aiming to merely dazzle our increasingly cynical senses (although that it does)--rather, at the forefront of this otherwise bonkers tale is a sensitive and uniquely Asian drama about the empowerment that comes from family, even those that are highly dysfunctional.

Seriously, stay with me…

In a U.S. military facility in South Korea, an arrogant and obviously cabin fevered American senior officer (“In Cold Blood” and “CSI”s Scott Wilson, a long way from the bloody avenues of Las Vegas) orders his subordinate to clean up the lab and do away with several cases of outdated formaldehyde. Aware of the hazards, and completely indifferent to them, Wilson leaves his defeated assistant to pour the chemicals down the drain and into Seoul’s Han River.

Six years later, we meet the serene old codger Park Heui-bong (Byeon Heui-bong) at his riverside snack shop, which serves a public park. Inside, his widowed slob-of-a-son Gang-du (Song Gang-ho) and his pre-teen daughter Hyeon-seo (Ko A-sung) watch older sister Nam-ju (Bae Du-na) compete in the National Archery championship on TV. After Nam-ju blows her chance at the prize, their disappointment is short-lived as they are alerted to something along the riverbank which has captured the attention of the crowd. Something large, moist and fleshy hanging from a bridge support— which, of course they immediately pelt with trash. It slithers into the river but before it can be forgotten, arises again within seconds and goes on a daylight rampage across the picnic grounds. Park, Gang-du, and Hyeon-seo flee the store and are caught up in the panic, a moveable feast for the creature—which is a sort of elephantine newt endowed with mandibles and a long prehensile tail—to artfully stomp, dismember, and swallow up like a “Star Wars” dewback-gone-dingo. Clumsy Gang-du lets go of his daughter’s hand for a split-second, just long enough for the creature to scoop her up and swim off down the river.

Later at a communal funeral parlor, the grieving family is joined by Nam-ju and younger brother Nam-il(Park Hae-il), an unemployed college grad who blames Gang-du for the young girl’s demise. A government biohazard squad quarantines the funeral home, and airs a news feed (an unintentional laugh for Canadian viewers, who should recognize former Deputy Prime Minister John Manley in what is obviously a hastily-chosen stock clip to represent “government officials”) in which CDC experts conclude the creature is host to a deadly and highly contagious virus, which is said to have already claimed the life of an American officer. As a result, the U.S. will intervene and start fumigating the city with “Agent Yellow” to secure the feared pandemic.

But when Gang-du receives a cell phone call from someone claiming to be Hyeon-su, he and his family unite to escape quarantine to locate her, at the risk of infection and even execution. The girl is alive and trapped in an underground concrete nest the creature has been using to store its future human snacks. Ever resourceful, she uses the fleeting instances the beast is away to search the piles of corpses for phones, food, and anything she can use to climb her way out of the mass grave (the dank, claustrophobic confines and threat of detection make for the film’s most white-knuckled moments).

Scouring the sewers for Hyeon-su, the family must brave an infected and paranoid public, bribe corrupt officials at even the lowest levels of public service, and endure betrayal from trusted colleagues who would turn them in for reward money. Once again, the real monster is us, but for all of the genre’s cynicism, the film’s spirit is essentially sweet and humane, reinforced by its bittersweet coda in which the family gains a new member under some truly heartbreaking circumstances (and the final shot one of the film’s many beautifully lyrical moments). Director Bong takes brave risks with the material here--he can’t resist the urge to indulge in some absurd slapstick, even during a funeral for slain children, but never at the expense of his endearing ensemble who remain believably motivated throughout.

While a technically astounding, the creature has not been given a personality ala Godzilla or King Kong, and is perhaps intended purely as a symbol—for some, one of American foreign intervention, for others, a timelier-than-usual man vs. nature eco-warning. Likely both—although Bong avoids easy grandstanding. Whereas the kaiju films of Japan found their inspiration from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Cold War’s balance of terror, “The Host” is a direct response to a recent real-life incident in which, amazingly, 227 liters of formaldehyde were ordered dumped into the Han river by Albert McFarland, a 59-year-old chief of the mortuary at the 8th U.S. Army garrison of U.S. Forces Korea, who served six months in prison for the offense.

Bong has accomplished a unique feat: to embrace the rules of the monster movie while breaking them with giddy delight at every opportunity. Currently the highest grossing homegrown film in South Korea’s history, “The Host” deserves to be an international hit but might be a little too genre-bending to score blockbuster crowds, and the monster-aspect will frighten off those with a genre prejudice. Which is their loss. I don’t want to sound like the Weinsteins, but the film could lose 20 minutes from its chatty middle, but how often can one really complain about getting too much of a good thing?

But oh, what I wouldn’t have done to have heard a Jay-Z/Honey Knights and the Moon Drops mash-up of “Save The Earth” over the end credits…

-Robert J. Lewis