Monday, March 19, 2007

The Host (Bong, 2006)

A careless chemical dump in a Korean river leads to the creation of a gigantic fish beast that also has the ability to hang upside down like a bat, swing around like an especially acrobatic monkey and run on land like a charging rhino in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host. The Host is a peculiar kind of monster movie in that it reveals the full abilities of its creature early on, letting the beast go on a rampage in broad daylight. Although it makes for a somewhat exciting opening sequence, it also proves to be somewhat disastrous for the film as a whole. It shifts the emphasis away from our thrill in discovering more about the newfound threat and places it squarely on a family of misfits who never grow or change in any meaningful way. It is film that wanders aimlessly from drama to comedy to horror to science fiction to political allegory, never finding a satisfying fit and consequently ending up as a largely incoherent mess.

The film starts out promisingly enough. After a thankfully brief back story and character introduction, we are soon amused by the sight of dimwitted city dwellers mistaking the beast for an unusual kind of dolphin and luring it towards them by tossing beer nuts into the river. The creature leaps onto land, sending the panicked masses scurrying and treating the viewer to about five to ten minutes of nicely orchestrated mayhem. At the conclusion of this sequence, the beast takes off with a key character, leading the others to presume her dead, and it is shortly thereafter where the film reveals its first signs of trouble.

We see a makeshift public shrine where the families of the creature’s victims have placed pictures of their missing loved ones. Rather than opting for a simple moment of humanity, Bong inexplicably tries to mine the moment for farcical comedy. Our central characters are so loud and demonstrative with their mourning that they begin to disrupt those around them. The scene is played for comedy, but where are we supposed to find humor? In the fact that this family has just lost a family member? In the fact that they are mourning ‘improperly’? The overall effect is to seemingly reveal to the audience information that we should not know. If the victim was really dead, the filmmakers wouldn’t treat the moment so flippantly, would they?

Eventually, however, we realize that The Host is woefully inconsistent about its attitude towards human life. In some horror movies, victims are dispensable, used merely as prey so that the filmmaker can engineer thrills. In other films, we are provided with real flesh-and-blood humans who embark upon a journey that actually means something. We invest in their fates because the decisions they make and the way that they grow actually has purpose. The Host rests at some unsatisfying point in between.

Unlike George Romero’s Land of the Dead, which wittily offered us a zombie polemic or Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer, which at least gleefully committed to its own over-the-top cartoonishness, The Host is whatever it wants to be at any given moment. It shifts around from dopey to creepy to sensitive to callous to humorous to earnest. It dabbles in drama, comedy, horror, sci-fi, paranoid political thriller and environmental cautionary tale without ever being completely satisfying in any one area. It sends four poorly written family members on a quest to find a fifth and then offers us an ending that renders the whole journey meaningless. It is as if each scene was shot without any thought to how it would fit together with all the others. Indeed, the film would probably work best for someone with the short-term memory loss suffered by Leonard in Memento. It is a film that is only concerned about the next five minutes, disregarding any sort of internal consistency. Consequently, The Host offers little tension and leaves little impression.



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