REVIEW: On an American military base near Seoul, a pathologist instructs a Korean assistant to dump what he considers to be large supply of spoiled formaldehyde down the sink drain of the autopsy room they are working in. The older American superior is unconcerned with the fact that the chemicals are poisonous and simply wants them out of the room. The assistant is reluctant at first, explaining that the drain leads straight to the Han River and it is against procedure to dispose of harmful and volatile materials in this manner. The American eventually convinces the man to comply and soon hundreds of bottles are poured into the river.
Six years pass, but not without some strange sightings in the water, until one clear afternoon along the water, Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), a rather simple snack-bar vendor working for his father is on the job. His middle-school aged daughter comes from class and joins, still in her uniform. When Gang-du brings some beer to a customer, he finds them staring at something odd hanging from the bridge, like a massive bat. Is it construction equipment, they ask. No. It moves and then drops softly into the water with a simple splash. Speculating on its size, a small crowd gathers and begins snapping pictures with their camera phones. Gang-du tosses a beer can into the water and the still unseen creature takes it. The crowd grows curious and amused, thinking it might be dolphin or some other sea animal. But that changes fast. The beast emerges and is immense in size, running along the embankment and attacking now fleeing day-trippers.
It quickly devours and injures people as it runs in circles around the river bank. Gang-du and another try to kill it but are no match. Panic engulfs the huge crowd and Gang-du shifts from fighter to survivor, running back to gather his daughter Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung). He finds her but in the chaos, they tumble. When he gets up, he has lost hold of her. Looking back, it’s too late. In the film’s singularly most powerful image, the monster, in slo-motion, swoops in and pulls the small girl into its clutches and leaps back into the dark river. It’s a thrilling and terrifying start.
The monster is a master of design, combining elements of amphibians with slimy dark skin, webbed stringy feet and a gaping mouth that, certainly by intention, resembles the multicultural legend of a toothed vagina with a bit of the Graboids in Tremors thrown in. What’s really striking bout the creature, and testament to the film makers in their confidence in the monster is its silence. No ground shaking roars and thunderous howls emanate from this beast, which seem to accompany nearly all in this genre, the “Host” instead is mute. It also moves ungainly on land, tripping and even tumbling on land, though not enough to slow it down. Its tail is like an arm, as dexterous and nimble as fingers. Unique and and mesmerizing, it has surprises in store right up to the end. That we can, despite the tragic ending, still have a sense of sadness for the monster, is a tribute to the film itself.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer), this monster in the dark creature feature is something of an anomaly as it mixes a number of genres, including horror, comedy, conspiracy, cover-up, and Geo-poliltical satire along with a very touching and emotional story about motherly roles, family and sacrifice. And it does it all (mostly) very well. Following gladly in the long proud tradition of 1950s and 60s low-budget films exploiting large scale consequences for messing with nature, The Host (괴물 Gwoe-Mul) is well-acted, well-produced and very satisfying, delivering a number of sharp jabs at governments, environmental conservancy opponents, plus a few others. Based on actual events (the contamination, not the monster) surrounding civilian mortician Albert McFarland, employed by the US Forces in Korea, who ordered his staff to dump 120 liters of embalming fluid down the mortuary drain (which thankfully passed through two separate water treatment plants before safely reaching the drinking supply), the film takes that controversial and ire-inspiring atrocity and turns it into a biting (on screen and off) parable of Korea’s growing animosity over the continued presence of American armed forces and the trouble they sometimes represent (at one point, an American doctor is portrayed as a person with one crossed eye, clearly indicting a skewered vision). That fervor aside, the movie itself achieves greatness not only with what is surely one of the finest monster arrival moments every filmed, but with its passion for the story and commitment to its characters. While the middle lags a bit in building its political statement, the last act more than makes up for it and reveals once again that Korean film makers are some of the best at creating and maintaining suspense with incredible cinematography and creative camera work. But more so than that, they are not afraid to go to places that mainstream Western cinema are so often reluctant to go, providing a much deeper and often far more emotional experience when it’s over. Ostensibly a monster movie, The Host reveals itself to be much, much more.
That Moment In: The Host
Scene Setup: Hyun-seo is alive. The creature swallowed her whole and carried her to a cavernous empty sewer beneath the Wonhyo Bridge. Lucky to be in one piece, while other are not, she uses her cellphone to make contact with her father. While authorities are skeptical, thinking he is infected with a monster-induced-toxin that makes him delirious, the family, consisting of Gang-du, his sister Nam-joo, their brother and their father manage to escape the heavily guarded quarantine they are housed in, as the government believes the area is infected and has sequestered anyone on the river that day to secure locations. As they get split up, each struggling to reunite and find Hyun-seo, the little girl remains a sort of prisoner in a dry catacomb of the drainage line of the sewer beneath the bridge. The “Host” returns often, regurgitating its victims, sometimes whole and sometimes as stripped bones. A gruesome pile of corpses is growing in the damp, dark pit. One time, two young boys are vomited into the chasm, brothers who are homeless. Only one is alive. His name is Se-joo and he looks to the older and bigger Hyun-seo for help. Together they wait for rescue, but Hyun-seo, clever and brave, also has a plan. Using the clothes from the bodies dumped in the pit, she ties together a make-shift rope and with a baton of a police officer found among the corpses, she is able hook a piece of catwalk above the deep hole. Unfortunately, once secured, the end dangles just out of reach. As they consider their options, the “Host” returns.
The Scene: (Timestamp 01:34:31): Unable to pluck the two small children from the cubby they hide in, the monster gives up and, exhausted from hunting, plops down in the gutter amid the bones and rests. Its head facing away from the children, Hyun-seo sees an opportunity as the slope of its back is directly under the hanging rope. She whispers to Se-joo that he must stay and hide. She will make a run for it, bringing back police and army and doctors and food. She then tosses a can at the beast to see if it will stir. When it lays dormant, she bolts and runs up the back of the monster and grabs the lifeline. But so, too does the monster grab Hyun-seo.
It sets her down ever so gently, one giant eye on its prey. There is a long moment of silence as Hyun-seo stands her ground with little Se-joo behind her. She faintly tells him to run back to the hole and as she prepares to bolt, the monster erupts from its slumber.
The moment is one of the best in a film filled with great moments like this. Child in danger movies are typically easy meat for garnering sympathy from audiences, and this is no different in that respect, but actress Go Ah-sung is remarkably good here. Covered in muck and grime throughout most of the film, her ruffled hair and smeared face remind us of her frightening dilemma as the wide-eyed young actress effectively carries the weight of her role.
Bon Joon-ho directs this very important scene with an artful eye. As it starts, Hyun-seo is standing at the mouth of the small hole the children hide in, her eye fixed on the creature just a few meters away. Standing in profile, she speaks with words of hope and courage to the younger boy who is fearful and hungry and bleeding, lending to the urgency. There is no music, just the soft soothing tones of the girl’s voice. Yet there is a palpable fear in the air; she is ready to pounce back into the cubby. With a last look at the boy, she bursts into a run as the music explodes in similar fury.
There is breathless moment when we are convinced, just as Hyun-seo, that she has done it, or at least got to the rope and able to being her run. The music pitches to a hopeful crescendo and then fades to bitter silence. Hyun-seo realizes first that something is wrong. We don’t see it, but she is wrapped in its tentacle like tail. She lets out a rushed breath as it tightens.
When the camera slowly pulls back, we see Hyu-seo suspended in the air, free of the rope and caught by the monster. It’s a devastating image and Bong lingers on it just enough to let it sink in. The animal, ever so still, and almost motherly, sets the child down amid a scattering of skulls and gore, slipping its tail out from around her and curling it close to its body again. But why? How sentient is this monster? Does it have emotions? Or does it like to hunt and sees the girl as too easy a meal. Self preservation is present in all living things. Perhaps it recognizes Hyun-seo’s but knows her escape may mean its own demise.
The interesting thing is the hesitation. It is watching her, albeit from a slumbering position, but it is aware and recognizes her attempt to flee. It could have crushed her with its constrictor-like tail. It could have smashed her against the wall. It could have fed itself like the trunk of an elephant. But it did none of that, instead placing her safely to the floor as if she were a fragile collector piece.
Bong doesn’t let us think to much on this, rather keeping us focused on the girl. Something subtle but very revealing occurs that may seem insignificant but alludes to something greater. As she stands unmoving in the grime, a spider crawls up her arm. Not just any spider though, a Nephila clavata, better known as the Jorō spider. It would be easy to suggest that the spider is a representation of fear itself as most humans have an instinctive fright of arachnids, and it could be just that. The spider is certainly less dangerous than the “Host”. But the spider is more metaphorical. In Japanese folkore and legend, the Jorōgumo is a spider than changes its appearance to become a beautiful woman with powers to cocoon and bind others. In this moment, Hyun-seo is no longer a child. She is, thematically akin to the role of mother, Se-joon’s protector, and has become a woman. Considering what happens next and how the film ends, the spider’s implication is surprisingly clear.
The Host is a captivating Korean-language film that takes the horror monster genre and gives it some heart, relying less on spectacle and city-wide destruction so overly-prevalent in most monster movies and instead develops more with characters and humanity in a richly satisfying film classic.