We're going international for this day's edition of 365 Days of Horror. South Korea to be exact. Why Japan has hogged the spotlight for Asian horror, South Korea really raised the bar with this monster movie. A mixture of science fiction, horror, slapstick, and heart-felt emotion make The Host a film to be reckoned with.
The Host (also known as Gwoemul) tells the story of a dysfunctional Korean family. An American army scientist tells his Korean assistant to pour formaldehyde and other chemicals down the drain. The assistant warns him that the drain leads to the Han River, but the scientist doesn't care. Cut to a few years later and a giant mutated fish/tadpole creature now lives in the river. Park Gang-du works in a snack bar along the river with his father, Hee-bong. Gang-du has a young daughter named Hyun-seo, an alcoholic unemployed brother named Nam-il and medalist archer sister Nam-joo. Gang-do is a bit slow and sleeps a lot, but he loves his father and daughter. The creature emerges from the water, terrorizing and eating unsuspecting visitors. Gang-du and an American soldier fight the creature, but cannot stop it. Hyun-seo is grabbed by the creature and believed to have died. The family comes together at a memorial to mourn her death and are taken by the government for testing. They are believed to be infected with a virus from the creature and are isolated. Gang-du receives a late night cell phone call from Hyun-seo saying she is stuck in a large sewer somewhere. Gang-do tries to tell the police, but they do not believe him. The family escapes the treatment facility and begins to search the sewers from Hyun-seo. In their search, they encounter the beast and Hee-bong is killed while Gang-do is captured by police. Nam-il contacts a friend who is able to trace Hyun-seo's cell phone, but is pursued by people who want to turn him in for a reward. Gang-do is taken to another treatment facility where he overhears that that is no virus and both the American and Korean governments are perpetuating the myth. Gang-do receives a frontal lobotomy, but is able to escape afterwards. Will Gang-du, Nam-il and Nam-joo be able to say Hyun-seo and stop the monster?
I'd be running in the opposite direction
I truly believe that for a horror movie to be great, it needs to have social commentary and The Host has plenty of it. The movie hits on environmentalism, government distrust, conspiracies, chemical warfare, and government ineptitude. For example, the Korean government uses a chemical named “Agent Yellow” (a thinly-veiled reference to Agent Orange used in the Vietnam War). This is similar to the Japanese monster movies, such as Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan. Like a good Romero movie, The Host gets the audience to question who the real villain is in the movie. The good thing about The Host is that it also includes humor and slapstick to keep the movie from plunging into political theater. There is always a concern that movies from another country will not translate well, especially for an American audience. While there are some cultural nuances and differences, you never feel lost or out of place while watching The Host.
The monster looks absolutely fantastic thanks to a few different teams involved with it's creation. It was designed by Chin Wei-chan, modeled by Weta Workshops, animatronics created by John Cox's Workshop, and the CGI was done by The Orphanage. Despite having a lot of horror chefs in the monster kitchen, the creature is both original and scary looking. Unlike many other monster films, the creature is seen very early in the film and has multiple scenes in broad daylight. The acting is very good throughout the film, with Song Kang-ho putting on a good performance as Gang-du. He is able to capture the both the humor and tragedy of his character very well. The supporting family cast also does a fine job of mixing drama and some comedy. The movie clocks in at close to 2 hours, so your are required to commit some time to watching it, but it never drags.
"Oh jeez, he's behind me, isn't he? Well, this is embarrassing!"
For my first Korean horror movie, I am so glad I chose to watch The Host. It is entertaining, exciting, scary, and funny. The political commentary is solid without ever being overly preachy or ham-fisted. The monster looks great, and despite having a limited budget, never looks particularly fake. Director Bong Joon-ho does a great job along with his actors in making a wide-ranging horror movie. Defintely see The Host if you get the chance. You won't regret it.