Director: Bong Joon-ho
It’s the time of year when most people start making New Year’s resolutions. What a lot of these resolutions boil down to in some shape of form is “how can I be more responsible in this specific aspect of my life?” So I thought to bring in the New Year we’d start with a movie that’s a wonderful, offbeat tale of responsibility, one that just happens to have a giant monster at the heart of it.
The film centers on Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), a lazy and incompetent man who runs a snack bar with his father. When a giant monster emerges from the Han River and snatches Gang-du’s daughter, Hyun Seo (Go Ah-sung), he is forced to band together with his dysfunctional family to escape the government-enforced quarantine and rescue his daughter before she’s eaten alive.
I was introduced to the work of Bong Joon-ho a few weeks ago with Snowpiercer (which is also on Netflix) and after reading my fellow contributor Sean W. Fallon’s list of “Five Films to Start Your Korean Movie Obsession” I decided to check out The Host. While the film is a kaiju movie, it’s a wildly unconventional one that does a lot of genre-blending. Bong Joon-ho takes tropes from fugitive thrillers, outbreak horror, family dramedy, and political satire to craft a film that uses the preconceived notions of the genres against the audience to create unexpected twists in terms of both tone and story.
I’ll admit the tonal shifts in The Host take a little getting used to especially if you’re accustomed to American film sensibilities. Even though I’ve watched a fair share of South Korean films, I was still taken aback at times when the supposed “rules” were broken. There were instances when the film switched so sharply from heartfelt drama to physical comedy, to horror that I didn’t have time to adjust my mindset for the right emotional reaction. Yet, when the film was said and done, I felt all the emotional resonance and themes of familial responsibility Bong Joon-ho ultimately wanted to convey. The Host is thrilling, sad, and funny, it just isn’t always these things when you expect it to be and that’s the beautiful originality of it.
Like Snowpierce, the film isn’t subtle, but I’m not convinced it should’ve been. After all, if the film is ultimately about taking responsibility for one’s actions then I don’t see any reason to try to bury it under drastic pretenses. The Host has rightfully drawn a number of comparisons to American science-fiction movies during the 50s and 60s where giant monsters sprang up as a result of nuclear testing. Here, the creature (oddly enough based on Steve Buscemi’s performance in Fargo) is a result of U.S. chemical dumping. While keeping its sense satiric edge, The Host provides some measured commentary on America’s lack of environmental concern or empathy, and the South Korean government’s role in spreading panic over the unsubstantiated threat of disease. Ultimately we’re left looking at responsibility (or the lack of it) in many forms: fathers to their children, siblings to each other, governments to their people and the things they create.
Maybe we could start off the New Year being a little more environmentally aware, lest we loose a giant monster on ourselves. But hey I get it, resolutions are a process. So ease yourself into the task by making a double-feature of The Host and Snowpiercer, it’s the cinematically responsible thing to do.