Bong Joon-ho's recent monster movie The Host was greeted with plaudits normally reserved for a master of the French New Wave, with an average Metacritic score of 85. It had a budget of $11,000,000, quite high for a non-American film, and special effects from Weta Digital, the New Zealand company co-founded by Peter Jackson which did SFX for all the Lord of the Rings films. But the ballyhoo was a bit overblown. It's a well-constructed homage to classic monster movies that hits all the right notes, but never truly feels transcendent.
At least the movie gets the big things right. The plot concerns a family, grandfather Park Hie-bong, his adult children Nam-il, Nam-joo, and Gang-du, all trying to liberate Gang-du's daughter Hyun-seo, whom the mutant tadpole kidnapped on his opening rampage. In the meantime, Hyun-seo plans her escape from the belly of the beast, giving the film's most compelling performance. Each adult is dysfunctional in his or her way, and each has a chance for massive screwup and then an earned redemption. The social satire is largely directed at America: the film opens with a boorish Army officer ordering a Korean to pour bottles of formaldehyde into the Han river near Seoul, and then U.S. Army officers later orchestrate a coverup of the monster's true nature while brewing hideous chemicals to destroy it. Naturally, the American killer chemicals don't exactly work as planned.
It may be a requirement of the genre that at least one of the main characters is stultifyingly stupid, but Gang-du, the protagonist, is especially so. He's a clumsy, narcoleptic simpleton with an awful blond dye job who feeds his daughter beer, attacks the movie's monster with a concrete metal sign, then mistakenly takes another girl's hand when he's trying to grab his daughter to run away from the beast, only to watch in slackjawed horror as the monster kidnaps his daughter. He is so breath-takingly incompetent that it's hard for the audience to root for him, and even a touching monologue by his father late in the film does little to bring the audience to his side. Similarly, the special effects are slightly disappointing: the monster is of appropriate size and ferocity, but it feels peculiarly weightless: it's frightening, but never feels truly menacing. It's more on par with the monster in The Relic (rating: 63) than Alien (rating: 88). And at two hours, the movie's just a bit long. Lopping off about 20 minutes of runtime -- giving less time to Gang-du and his siblings while keeping the focus on Hyun-seo -- would have covered up a lot of sins.
That said, it's enjoyable. It works as a cheesy late night action-horror movie, fitting effortlessly into a quintessentially American genre while poking fun at America. The fact is, there's a relative dearth of satisfying B-movies in theaters these days, with money limited by the recession and scripts limited by fallout from the writers' strike, and theaters have been rather fallow in general of late. (My favorite recent B-movie would probably be last year's Doomsday, a complete ripoff/pastiche of Escape from New York and Mad Max, offering no redeeming social value and nary a dull moment, rating: 80.) Bong is clearly a capable genre craftsman, but The Host feels more workmanlike than a labor of love.
Cross-posted on Remingtonstein.
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