Friday, March 25, 2011

Being a Good Guest

Today, Netflix Streaming goes back a few years to 2007 and the South Korean monster movie The Host. When the trailers for this film started appearing in American theaters the year before, I had been enticed by not only the the film's premise, but the method in which this idea was carried out. As a monster movie with comedic elements, I had been interested to see whether the pace set by the trailer could be carried out by a full-length motion picture. But, like many films at that time, I missed out on seeing it in the theater, and while I always had it on my "to do" list, it was in danger of never crossing my path as more and more films flocked to the theaters and DVD racks. Even seeing up to three films a week doesn't seem to cover as much ground as I had originally thought. Fortunately, I happened upon it one evening while searching Netflix's library, and while I didn't immediately view it, I certainly made a point to take an evening and catch up on this international hit.

Hurry, they're about to make a Starcraft 2 announcement!
The Park family is an odd lot of misfits and losers. Patriarch Hee-bong (Byon Hee-bong) has little left except a snack and noodle stand in the public park. One of his sons, Nam-il (Park Hae-il) is college-taught but an alcoholic protester by nature. Daughter Nam-joo (Bae Doona) is competitive archer who can't succeed due to a lack of nerve. His other son is a lazy bum, but at least Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) has one thing to be proud of: his bright young daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seung). Things are going normally for the family today. The park is lively with potential customers, and things are for the most part normal. At least, things were normal before the discovery of a strange creature hanging under the nearby Wonhyo bridge. The creature then attacks the gawking bystanders, killing many of them in the process, and then before it disappears manages to kidnap young Hyun-seo while Gang-du is helpless to do anything but watch. Soon after, the military arrives and quarantines everyone who was in the vicinity of the attack. Not believing the youngest member of their family to be deceased, the four remaining Parks come together as a family to escape quarantine and hunt down the creature that took away their brightest star.

I'd shout a warning, but there's no movie without you getting nabbed, sorry.
Despite sporting a meager budget (by Hollywood standards), The Host manages to do an amazing job with the creature effects used. Looking like something of a mutated fish, the monster here moves fluidly and is perfectly melded into the real-world environments we're shown. From the beginning, we see the monster in all it's glory. There are no half-focused shots of it early on, with more and more detail coming into focus the more of the film we see. While that's not normal filmmaking it doesn't make the creature any less of a mystery and seeing the full creature from the beginning doesn't make it any less scary. There are very few times where the creature looks anything less than authentic, but even those limited circumstances are remedied by the softening of a camera's focus and pushing the creature into the background.

Seriously, did he cosplay as Cloud Strife that year or something?
You wouldn't think a thriller film featuring giant monsters to also possess great acting, but The Host has no fewer than three outstanding performances within it's borders. Song Kang-ho will at first annoy you with his bright orange hair and apparent laziness, but as he becomes the father whose daughter is lost, Kang-ho's performance becomes much, much better. His single-minded determination makes for some compelling acting, and you can begin to see why he is such a revered leading man in the Far East. As the family's patriarch, Byeon Hee-bong is stellar from the start, and easily becomes one of the most sympathetic characters in the film. Knowing what it's like to lose a loved one, the elder Park is arguably the strongest member of the family and the one the audience will likely be rooting for. But the real star here is the film-debuting Ko Ah-seong as the youngest member of the Park clan. Rather than leave the mystery as to whether she's alive or dead, we're shown scenes of her surviving in the creature's nesting area, and by a long way they end up being the most enjoyable parts of the movie. As a spunky young heroine, her attempts to escape the situation she's in are often more interesting than the the exploits of the rest of her family. Park Hae-il and Bae Doona are unfortunately nowhere near as interesting as the rest. Both are pretty much cut from the same cloth; smarter-than-average people bogged down by a glaring weakness. It's a shame in that both characters could have been much more interesting whereas in reality they have their moments but otherwise don't get to do much.

Sure, it's the sewers. What could go wrong?
The film's main problem is that it can't wrap a good enough story around interesting elements. There are long periods of nothing happening centered by a sudden, violent scene involving the monster, ad nauseum. The humor elements are also frittered away. While there are some scenes that do tickle the funny bone, mostly involving physical humor, I found myself thinking that if they'd played the film more straight and done away with those bits, it would have made for a more powerful film. Indeed these interludes are few and far between, and I can only wonder as to why they were included in the first place. The only such parts involving the main cast are more awkward than gut-busting, making the error more obvious.

Yes, Mr. Anderson finally saw The Host, now stop looking at me like that!
Also awkward is the film's obvious stance on the United States' military presence and impact on South Korea. The creature's growth is blamed on US carelessness, and in fact was based on a similar real-life incident that occurred in 2000, when a Korean mortician working for the US military dumped large amounts of formaldehyde down the drain, raising environmental concerns and inciting anti-American antagonism. And a later scene in the film draws obvious comparisons to Agent Orange, the controversial herbicidal warfare chemical. I actually don't have a problem with the the use of these sources to satirical effect and don't have any problems with any actual anti-US posturing to the point where they actually have a reason to distrust our military forces. However, being on the opposite end of that barb does feel a bit odd, and is not something you usually will see in film, especially with the very PRO-military Battle: Los Angeles currently doing so well overseas, most notably in - you guessed it - South Korea.

Not surprising with monster films; lots of dark spaces
When all is said and done, however, I can't for the life of me figure out why this film was praised as highly as it has been. The acting is alright and the special effect were good, but with a story so hokey and full of holes that it largely negated all the good the first two brought to the table. The humor was needless, and as a final insult the last act was so silly and idiotic that I wish I had stopped watching well before then. I can't in good faith recommend it to you, but if you're hard up for a monster flick and haven't seen this one yet, I suppose I could step aside and let you learn the hard way.

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