Monday, 16 July 2007

review: the host (bong joon-ho, 2006)

Little Miss Sunshine meets Jaws. As unlikely as the combination sounds, that's the best way to convey the essence of this odd Korean blockbuster, in which a deeply dysfunctional family is cast into crisis when the youngest daughter (Ah-sung Ko) is abducted by a mutant beast that looks like the result of the union of a catfish, a squid and Giger's Alien.

Throughout the film, the relationship of the family members is given as much importance as the monster's CGI-animated antics, while the whole is sprinkled with a strong element of political satire, mostly related to the Korean government and the US Army forces' attempts to cover up a situation they created. There is a strong anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment, particularly anti-American, bent to the film, though not much comes of this except for the Korean and especially American forces becoming almost cartoonish bad guys.

The Host gets a lot right, particularly an excellent cast that bring the family to life, making the characters seem entirely real and endearing in their flaws. It is this element that carries the film, giving it an emotional core that differentiates it from most other monster movies, or most blockbusters in general. As with many other Korean movies of recent years, also, it demonstrates an impressive level of technical production on all levels, with some remarkable cinematography and sound design.

The film's major failing is that it never seems quite sure what it wants to be. While this is part and parcel of its genre-bending approach, the problem is that it's completely uneven in tone, shifting clumsily from tragedy to light comedy, to heavy-handed satire, and back again. A case in point is the scene where the grandfather, entreating his son and daughter to be kind to their slightly-slow brother, gives a tearful admission of guilt for his son's condition. And the reason? I won't spoil it, but I can only assume it's meant to be funny. In the event, it's just awkward.

Another crippling flaw is the monster itself. It simply doesn't work, either as an artistic design (it feels like they just wanted to cram everything they could think of into one monster) or in terms of execution (the CGI varies from acceptable to ropey) ; in fact, it looks completely absurd. It's impossible to feel even remotely scared of it, and thus The Host does not even begin to work as a horror film; it just isn't scary, or tense, or especially exciting.

The Host's Korean origins have granted it a level of critical attention which it would never have had if it was a Hollywood product; it is, at heart, a pure and simple crowd-pleasing blockbuster, albeit one with a little more between the ears than many. On those terms, and nothing more, it offers solid entertainment, and earns itself a recommendation. It's definitely the best monster film I can think of in the past few years, though that's something of a back-handed compliment given that it's not exactly the most populated of genres currently. Ultimately, it's an ambitious mess of a film, reaching for a number of targets and falling short of most of them; the results, however, are never short of enjoyable.

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