Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Bong Joon-ho

'Host' Stories

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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The fact that Korean director Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder) has traveled all the way to San Francisco to talk about his new film The Host doesn't seem so odd, considering that a local special effects house, The Orphanage, provided the film's "creature effects."

Though Bong, 37, speaks a fair amount of English, he keeps a translator handy for his more in-depth comments. He explains that, to make the creature seem more realistic, he combined "practical" effects (i.e. effects created on-set) with the computer effects that were added later. For example, when the creature jumps into the Han River, it causes a giant splash that spatters the camera lens. Bong and his crew dropped a physical object (a chunk of cement) of about the same size and weight as the creature into the water, and then with computers erased the object, replacing it with the digital creature.

"We used many practical effects; there are many combinations," Bong says. "For example, when the monster suddenly appears and the truck crashes, we used some very heavyweight things falling down to the real truck. And that truck crash is real. And then we covered it with the CGI monster."

One of Bong's favorite moments is when the monster first appears on the banks of the Han. "The very first shot is the most crucial. From that shot, the audience can believe in the existence of the monster," he says. In the shot, the monster tromps through a crowd of people tossing a few out of his way. "When we practiced it, we used a mountain motorbike that would do the path of the creature. We practiced all day. We got a motorbike rider who was used to going up steep mountains. He would do exactly what the creature would do and then stuntmen and extras would [freak out] when they passed by. After practicing all day, when the film was actually rolling, it was done without the motorbike, because then we'd have to erase it with CGI. That was even funnier because people were reacting to empty air. It looked very funny when we did it. It was ridiculous."

The Host harkens back to the many giant monster movies of the 1950s that, aside from their obvious thrills, had a little something to say about humanity in an age of terror. In the film, the lazy, sweatpants-clad Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) runs a snack stand by the river. A widower and a single dad, Gang-du is raising his crafty daughter, Hyeon-seo (Ko Ah-sung), all on his own. 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. The monster manages to capture Hyeon-seo, which brings out the entire Park family. Gang-du's sister Nam-ju (Bae Du-na) is a professional, competing archer, and his brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il) is 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.

Unlike most films, the characters in The Host occasionally stop to eat. According to Bong, one of the major themes in the film is eating, or feeding. "In this film, the state and society and the system have turned their back on the weak people. So you see the weak people helping themselves. We express that through the feeding. There's a lot of continuous food throughout the film."

In one scene, the family, exhausted from searching for Hyeon-seo, heads back to their food stand to eat dinner. They sit and eat in silence. A ghostly image of Hyeon-seo appears at the table, and the family members each pass food to her. "It's the only 'illusion' scene. It also shows the objective of this film. The whole family, that was their goal to find her and feed her and it's only through the illusion that they can do this. In another scene, someone asks, 'how many days since Hyun-so has been starving?' It's just a simple, primitive question, but it's very effective. Anyone who has children will know if their child is starving. It's like the blood flows backwards."

That's the major triumph of The Host: not just that it succeeds as a superior horror film, but that it manages to get across Bong's pet issues without pandering or preaching. "That's not just limited to this film," Bong says. "That's the sort of project I like and enjoy. Just like in everyday life. I don't really prefer meeting people who are serious all the time and talking seriously for an hour. Rather, we could be joking around and then when I get home I start thinking about what we were talking about, and it hits home later. You keep thinking about it. It's the same thing with films. In the theater, you're excited and you're swept by the fun of it all, but when you get home, you have time to reflect."

March 5, 2007

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