Until recently, the last movie I’d seen in the theater was Pan’s Labyrinth; before that, Casino Royale, and before that, I think it was Pirates of the Caribbean 2. I don’t get out to the theaters much, so it was a bit of a coup when I managed to see two movies in the theater last weekend. One was 300; the other was the South Korean monster movie Gwoemul (“The Host”).
Ever since I was a wee tyke, watching Creature Double Feature on Boston’s WLVI 56 on Saturdays afternoons, I’ve been a fan of monster movies. Godzilla was always my favorite, but I had a soft spot for King Kong, Frankenstein, Dracula—all the movie monsters detailed in those old Crestwood orange hardcover books you used to be able to find in your local library. I also enjoyed films such as the original black-and-white The Thing and, when I was older, John Carpenter’s 1980s remake.
There was a dearth of decent monster movies in the 1990s, unless you count all the vampire flicks–which I don’t. Vampires have become a ubiqitous a sub-genre of monster movies, as have zombies. I also don’t really count slasher flicks starring Freddy, Jason, Leatherface et al., because they seem to be cut from a different kind of cloth than the sort of monster movie I’m talking about—a movie that has its roots in films starring John Agar, Russell Johnson, or Gamera.
In other countries, however, the giant-monster genre is still popular. Godzilla’s had a new movie as recently as 2004. And then there’s Gwoemul, translated to English as The Host, a 2006 South Korean film that has recently been released in the States to very positive reviews.
The story was partially inspired by a real-life incident in which a mortician working for the U.S. military dumped a large amount of formaldehyde down a drain in Seoul. That’s how The Host begins, but what happens after that is pure fantasy—the formaldehyge somehow mutates a catfish into a bloodthirsty monster the size of an 18-wheeler.
As many critics have noted, The Host avoids the American formula of hiding the monster for more than half the movie. Instead, we get to see the beast rampaging—in broad daylight!—within the first ten minutes of the film. The design of the monster is a cross between the monster from The Relic and Sammael from Hellboy, with a lot of fishy touches thrown in. The creature is done entirely in CGI—no rubber suits here—and it’s quite convincing. The monster is almost mesmerizing as it swings by its tail under bridges and lopes awkwardly over the land, slurping up unfortunate bystanders in its slimy maw.
The story focuses on how the monster’s arrival affects a family; specifically, the young Park Gang-Du and his daughter, Park Hyun-seo, as well as their extended family. The Parks run a small convenience store by the river, led by Gang-Du’s father, Hie-Bong. Gang-Du’s brother is a college-educated, unemployed former activist named Nam-Il, and his sister Nam-Joo is a competitive archer with a tendency to hesitate a bit too long. Will she find herself in a situation where she has to fire an arrow at the monster seconds before something bad happens? …maybe.
The plot takes some twists and turns and spends a good time away from the monster, which is ameliorated by how much of the monster we get to see when it is on the screen. There’s a lot of discussion of family and a lot of humor; fortunately, most of it is intentional and not the byproduct of seeing a foreign film with subtitles. There are some genuine scares—the slow, building kind, not the cheap hand-on-the-shoulder type—and a surprisingly dramatic character arc.
The acting is good with an exception: The Host falls prey to the same problem as many of the Godzilla films of the 1990s, in which Americans who happen to be living in the foreign country (in this case, South Korea) are hired to play American roles. Sometimes the Americans aren’t even professional actors, and judging by the wooden acting on display here, I think that might have been the case. That said, the American actor chosen to play one prominent governmental role is so odd-looking and gives such an eccentric performance that it works on an (I’m guessing intentionally) humorous level.
There’s a subplot about South Korea calling in the U.S., who claim the monster is carrying a dangerous virus and who have developed a substance called “Agent Yellow” to kill the monster and the virus. Yeah, the subtext isn’t so subtle, but the South Korean government comes in for as much criticism as the U.S., and both government are portrayed as being more incompetent than evil.
The Host is a type of monster movie rarely seen in America today, and I suspect the early reveal of the monster may influence future Hollywood movies. If you’d like to see something a bit off the beaten path, check out this delightfully slimy bit of cinema.