Combustible Celluloid
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With: Song Kang-ho, Byeon Hie-bong, Park Hae-il, Bae Du-na, Ko Ah-sung
Written by: Bong Joon-ho, Hah Joon-won, Baek Chul-hyun
Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
MPAA Rating: R for creature violence and language
Language: Korean with English subtitles
Running Time: 119
Date: 05/21/2006

The Host (2007)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Squid Marks

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The new giant monster movie by Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, The Host, caused a stir at Cannes, became the highest grossing film in Korean history and has been proclaimed an official masterpiece by Cahiers du Cinema. A spooky knuckle-biter with genuine moments of heartbreaking genius, it begins with a flashback to a callous lab technician ordering a flunky to dump dozens of vials of formaldehyde down the drain, which leads directly into Korea's Han River.

The lazy, sweatpants-clad Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) runs a snack stand by the river. Unfortunately, he mainly sleeps with his face planted between the lollipops and chewing gum. Sporting oversized cheeks and a triangular nose, Song also appeared in Bong's masterful previous film, Memories of Murder (2003), in an almost totally reversed performance; he actually appeared years older in the earlier film.

We soon learn that Gang-du is a widower and a single dad, raising his crafty daughter, Hyeon-seo (Ko Ah-sung), all on his own. When she complains that her cell phone is not fit to be seen in public, he reveals -- in a funny and touching moment -- a ratty popcorn bucket full of loose change, all saved in an effort to buy her a new phone. Gang-du's father, Park Heui-bong (Byeon Heui-bong), owns the stall and does his best to make sure that the fried squid has the proper number of tentacles when served.

While serving snacks, Gang-du notices a throng of people staring at something under the nearby bridge. It looks like a giant, hanging sac. Suddenly it drops in the water. Bong's camera swings around, capturing Gang-du's passive face, and swings around again as it casually captures the giant beast, a kind of mutated squid, climbing onto the bank and galumphing toward us. It's an astonishing moment, perhaps the greatest "monster reveal" moment ever shot. (The film's F/X were created at San Francisco's The Orphanage.

The monster manages to capture Hyeon-seo, which brings out the entire Park family. Gang-du's sister Nam-ju (Bae Du-na) is, of all things, a professional, competing archer, and his brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il) is a kind of suave troublemaker, a college graduate unable to land a job in modern Korea. Fortunately, Hyeon-seo manages to phone her father from some unknown location near the river and the search is on. Unfortunately for our heroes, their search becomes complicated when the government decides that the monster is also carrying a fatal disease, and quarantines the entire river area.

If The Host were a documentary about the horrors of modern life, audiences would nod gravely, sit through it with a sense of righteous duty and then move on. Bong's supreme achievement is that he has made his many messages -- unemployment, the state of food, pollution, mob hysteria, government reliability, military arrogance, etc. -- fun. Beyond that, it's actually quite a dense film, with many focuses. And so Bong has achieved a deft juggling act as well as an enormously skillful film with just the right touches of humor and pathos to balance its horrors.

Indeed, Bong seems to understand that the sight of a giant monster isn't really enough to scare audiences these days, and so the monster is never the main focus. It's never meant to be; instead it's a wedge driven between the comfortable aspects of life and the terrible ones. The monster reminds us how truly good we have it, but also how bad things really are if we remember, if we're not too scared, to look.

Magnolia Home Entertainment has released a spectacular 2-disc DVD set of this great film. Disc one comes with a director's commentary track (in English), co-hosted by critic Tony Rayns. It also comes with an English-dubbed audio track for that Godzilla flavor, as well as the original Korean. Other extras include deleted scenes, deleted "news reports," and comments from director Bong. Disc two comes with all kinds of featurettes about the creature and other goodies.

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