Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Host (Gwoemul) (2006) - reconsidered

2006. 119 min. R - monster-eating-then-regurgitating-people violence, no nudity, some language, children in danger. Pretty weak R.

IMDB says... A monster emerges from Seoul's Han River and focuses its attention on attacking people. One victim's loving family does what it can to rescue her from its clutches.

The 73rd Virgin says... My initial 4-sheep review was tossed out rather quickly on Netflix and then pasted over here a couple years later. But as a connoisseur, if I watch something enough, I’ll start to call it art. So wow, this is great art.

It looks like it’s going to be a tired old mutant-monster-from-toxic-waste plot mode. It is that, but after re-watching, I can’t think of any movies that move so seamlessly from monster to comedy to family drama to politics to art house. Maybe “Jaws”, which is pretty high praise.

The politics are a little impenetrable to me, but the United States military starts trouble by having Scott Wilson of “In Cold Blood” and now “The Walking Dead” fame force his assistant to dump fuming chemicals down the drain into the Han River. While we wait six years for the blowback from that, we meet the Park family: Gang-Doo, an apparently dim layabout with dyed-blonde hair who lives with his father, Hie-bong, and helps him run a concession for holidayers along the river; his daughter Hyun-seo, about 13, played by a remarkably charming actress Ah-sung Ko; her uncle Nam-il who is an angry college grad with no career and no skills except he makes a mean Molotov cocktail; and her aunt Nam-Joo who is competing in the Korean nationals as an archer. She is extremely slow and methodical in all things, including running from cops and aiming at monsters. (Clips are larger scale than usual to accommodate subtitles.)

At first I was baffled at so much detail and care in presenting these characters, but it slowly charmed me when I realized how much of the entertainment and narrative comes from the family politics. I’ve never seen a horror movie quite like this.

So now a very large mutant salamander-squid with mouth parts like Tremors graboids is seen hanging upside down under a bridge, and the fun begins. There is a wickedly funny scene as they all try to feed the creature junk food like it’s a goose or something. Surprisingly, Gang-Doo is heroic and brave but can’t save his daughter. This amazing - much edited - sequence of scenes is in most previews so I’m not spoiling anything.

As it happens the monster doesn’t immediately eat people but swallows a few to be deposited back in its lair until they are tender, and captures others with its tail for future food.

And then almost imperceptibly the movie turns into…a comedy…and then a family drama.

There is perhaps a too much time spent on the government’s and the Army’s fake story about a virus but the SARS sub-references are fun. Soon the whole city is wearing face masks for no reason and the water front is being fogged with disinfectants.

While all this is happening Hyun-seo, who personifies “plucky”, is surviving in the creature’s sewer lair and searching every corpse for cell phones so she can call her dad. The monster also captures two homeless boys who are sewer dwellers and she becomes den mother.

The family finally escapes the authorities and begins to plan the rescue. In another great scene they flee to Dad’s concession stand for food where Hyun-seo’s apparent ghost joins them. Unremarked upon, they feed her. They know she must be starving.

There are at least a half-dozen oddly delicate or humorous scenes that deepen the characters without slowing down the movie. Even as they all get separated in desperate circumstances they stay focused on the only thing that makes them function as a family. Aunt Nam-Joo is especially dogged. It’s all very touching but there are plenty of striking, almost art house-style scenes, to keep us visually engaged.

The final 20 minutes are a blend of campy politics, environmental paranoia, monster movie, high art, and then an unexpected and quite poignant ending, complete with Molotov cocktails, standard Hollywood-style heroism, comical incompetence, slow-motion, and mournful classical music. It’s just beautiful, as is the epilogue.

IMDB indicates worldwide gross over $87 million, so maybe I'm the last person to find this. The cover blurb quotes Logan Hill of New York Magazine, “One of the greatest monster movies ever made." Every time I watch it I come a little closer to agreeing with him.

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