The Host (Review)

The Host

aka Gwoemul

Song Kang-ho as Park Gang-du
Byeon Hie-bong as Park Hie-bong
Park Hae-il as Park Nam-il
Bae Doo-na as Park Nam-ju
Ko Ah-sung as Park Hyun-seo
Directed by Bong Joon-ho

The Host is one of the best monster films to come out in years. End review.

Okay, I’ll continue. I’ll be doing this two-fold. First, a general review up top, and then a full recap of the film after a break with warning, so if you wish to avoid spoilers, you will know when to stop. As the American release has been pushed back again, and based on many other films might never show up in American theaters outside of film festivals, so TarsTarkas.NET is plowing ahead and taking it on ourselves. Take that, terrible American foreign film distributors!

The delightful opening sequence when the monster runs amok is a nice change from the films that spend forever building up and then end up insulting the audience with disappointing action sequences and a creature with no personality. Godzilla from 1998 is a good example, and why that monster is called GINO (Godzilla In Name Only.) As people run around in panic, the sense of chaos is portrayed by the handheld camera shots and the people running for their lives. The monster is not always in view, at times we don’t know where it is, as the scenario would be like to anyone caught in the middle of the action.

With actors who’ve played characters in great Korean treasures such as Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Memories of Murder (the latter was done by the same director), The Host has collectively some of the best actors in South Korea. The characterization and acting in the film are top notch, another thing missing from many monster films (the too numerous to mention Sci-Fi Channel films would be a major contributor.) Song Kang-ho is Park Gang-du (or Kang-doo or Kang-du, depending on which translation scheme you use) who is a single father working in his dad’s food shop by the Han River. Gang-du had a tough life growing up, and now spends lots of his time sleeping. His professional archery competitor sister Nam-ju is played by Bae Doo-na (or Bae Du-na), one of Korea’s best young actresses. Her hesitation costs her at tournaments. The third sibling is Park Hae-il as Nam-il, a burnt out college graduate who has no job besides crawling into a bottle to forget his unemployment, and is a die hard pessimist. The father of the clan is Park Hie-bong, played by Byeon Hie-bong, who is great as well. Relative newcomer Ko Ah-sung plays the young daughter of Gang-du, Park Hyun-seo, who is trapped in the Creature’s lair.

The environmental message is clear from the get go, as the American Doctor orders the Korean researcher to pour gallons and gallons of formaldehyde down the drain, which empties into the Han River. This is based on a real incident where an American dumped chemicals into the river. Despite no mutated monsters devouring civilians in real life, the film has several other characters that are American and evil. The most of the response to the Creature is run by Americans or United Nations officials, as well as the American super weapon Agent Yellow (just what could THAT be based on, I wonder…) The inept governmental response is highlighted, as the quarantines prevent the Park family from rescuing the missing Hyun-seo, and the cross-eyed American researcher decides to drill brains in a search for samples of the virus the creature is supposed to be carrying. Not every American is portrayed evil. One named Donald is a military man who helps in the opening sequence dealing with the monster at great risk over his Korean girlfriend’s objections. It can be seen that the film’s problem isn’t with Americans as a people, but with blatant disregard for environmental impacts and innocent people caught in the middle.

Now, there are some flaws, like every movie. Following Korean norms, the film is long, clocking in at around two hours. The quick paced beginning of the film turns into points of dragging slowness before the family escapes and goes monster hunting. Several other sections later on also disrupt the pacing, but everything included ties together, the film might have benefited from an editing job to trim 15 minutes or so. From many of the prior examples of Korean cinema reviewed here, the time of two hours is almost standard, so not unexpected. The script is still relatively tight.

The biggest grievance is that the monster has very little personality. Now, I’m not craving that the monster have a big scene where we find out it was the child of abuse or its mommy was a drunk, but making it more than just an eating machine would be good. There are a few misfires, but nothing substantial overall. It doesn’t even have a proper name, as calling it The Host just sounds corny, and Gwoemul is too hard to spell or pronounce for us Americans. We’ve settled for “the Creature” and hope the Creature From the Black Lagoon doesn’t come looking for royalties, or we’ll send Fat Kid to shotgun Gills again. His name is Horace!

In conclusion, see the freaking thing!

Now, that’s the end if you want just a quick overview. For a recap of all the events (including the ending) in the spirit of TarsTarkas.NET, see below…

Rated 9/10 (Fishermen, Old Friend, Shooting Arrows, Se-joo, Bottles and Bottles, Protest Party, Agent Yellow, Georgia O’Keeffe Mouth, Another Yellow Agent)

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Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) – Park Gang-du (whose name can also be spelled Kang-doo or Kang-du) is a single father of Hyun-seo, working for his dad at a snackshack by the Han River, and is caught up in forces outside his control as a Creature emerges and kidnaps his daughter. Suffers from random narcolepsy and dyed-blonde hair.
Park Hie-bong (Byeon Hie-bong) – Father of three, grandfather of Hyun-seo and patriarch of the Park family. A wilder man in his youth, settled down now and runs a snack shack. Organizes his family’s escape from the hospital, but gets killed by the Creature.
Park Nam-il (Park Hae-il) – Brother of Gang-du, out of work alcoholic with a pessimistic streak a mile long. Spent most of his schooling protesting. Has terrible throwing aim.
Park Nam-ju (Bae Doo-na) – Sister of Gang-du, a professional archery competitor, has problems with hesitation. Likes sleeping in bridges and crevices.
Park Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung) – The cute daughter who has been creature-napped. Addicted to beer and cell phones. Rescued moments too late.
The Creature – The Host with the most. With a quad-jawed mouth, prehensile tail and tounge, and a habit of collecting food. We had a choice of many names: Gwoemul, Creature, Monster, Host, Rudiger…but we’re sticking with this one.

We begin as all monster movies do, in the morgue of an US Army base in Yongsan, Korea. Dr. Evil White Guy sees dust on the shelf, and goes crazy. White Guy crazy. He yells at poor Mr. Kim, the fellow worker, about how he hates dust. Therefore, all the formaldehyde that has dust on the bottles must be poured down the drain. Mr. Kim objects, as the drain empties into the Han River, but Dr. Evil White Guy makes him do it anyway. All 1000 bottles of it. That’s like hundreds of thousands of dollars of formaldehyde, being thrown away because their containers have dust? This dude’s crazy! Maybe he had to blow his budget to get funding for next year.

June 2002 – Han River. Some fisherman find a weird-looking tiny fish with many tails. It nips one of them and escapes back into the water.

October 2006 – Han River Bridge. Mr. Yoon is about to jump, and talks about something dark in the water. Then he leaps.

Okay, enough with the prologues, can we meet the real characters now? Good. Park Gang-du is asleep at his post, the counter of a snack shack by the Han River. Notice all these mentions of the Han River? That’s because it’s important. His father owns the snack shack, and goes by the name Park Hie-bong. Hie-bong makes his son fry up some squid for some customers, but Gang-du is distracted when his daughter Hyun-seo returns from school, complaining of her drunk uncle coming in for parents day and her cheap cell phone. They go inside to watch TV, as Gang-du’s sister and Hyun-seo’s aunt Nam-ju is on TV competing in an archery tournament. Gang-du mentions he’s saving for a new phone for Hyun-seo, which is all change that looks like has been pilfered from the register. Also, Gang-du gives his daughter a beer to drink, so break out your “Parent of the Year” awards. Grandpa Hie-bong tells Gang-du that he was caught snatching a leg off a squid, and must replace it for free to the customer. Gang-du heads out by the river to give it to them, but everyone there is distracted.

Something is hanging on the bridge. Something big.

No, not Rosie O’Donnell. It lets go and falls into the water a little after it’s first spotted. Swimming around, the people don’t know what it is. Gang-du throws a beer can into the water, which soon disappears as the creature eats it. Everyone starts tossing food into the water, thinking it’s a river dolphin that’s gotten lost. All is quiet, and Gang-du turns to the right, noticing that the creature is now on land and running down a bunch of people, headed straight for him! RUN!! Everyone scatters out of the way, but one unfortunate soul gets whipped by the Creature’s tail and goes flying into the river. This well plotted sequence captures the panic and is, quite frankly, awesome. The Creature runs all over the park area by the river, chasing people throughout, and follows a bunch of them into a building where the back exit is chained off. An American named Donald goes to try to help over his girlfriend’s objections and Gang-du aides him in knocking off the chains. The monster storms out and is still charging, chasing a fat kid. Donald and Gang-du grab a street sign to distract the monster with, which then turns and goes after Donald. He’s down when Gang-du slams the tail of the Creature, which causes it to go after him instead. On TV, Hyun-seo and Hie-bong watch Nam-ju lose in the final round, ending up in third place. Hyun-seo goes outside, dejected, and is quickly grabbed by Gang-du as he runs by; she doesn’t even know what is going on. They run, but trip and fall. Gang-du grabs her and and keeps going, only it’s not her hand, it’s another girl. Hyun-seo is let behind, and the monster is right behind her. It grabs her with its tail and jumps into the river! Gang-du sees the creature spit out the fat kid and put her in it’s mouth on the other side.

Well, that’s a downbeat ending to a great opening sequence!

Everyone must evacuate the area, so say the authorities. The people are put in Soowon City Hall, and that’s where sister Nam-ju finds them. From the pictures on the wall for mourners, there are at least 37 dead. Don’t ask how they got black and white photographs of the same size for every victim so quickly. Unemployed drunk Nam-il, brother of Gang-du, also arrives. They all writhe together in a group before the photographs, accusing each other and making a big scene, which attracts the attention of the media, who they all start yelling at.

Later, the family talks, and we find out that Hyun-seo’s mother abandoned her right after she was born, and went off and died later. Grandpa Hie-bong mentions that old people say that whenever an animal kills people it should be torn limb from limb. Old Korean people are the mortal enemies of PeTA, and PeTA deserves as many mortal enemies as possible. A guy in a yellow Hazmat suit comes in and wants to know who everyone was that touched the creature. Brother Nam-il wants to know why, and the guy in yellow Hazmat says the answer is on the news, so Hazmat turns on the TV. The answer is not on the news, and the guy doesn’t bother to say what it is. Gang-du volunteers that he touched the creature, and a whole team of Hazmat people grab him and throw him into a sack.

The family finally get to see the news which explains that Donald got more than just some Creature bites, he got an infection from the monster, which is THE HOST of the infection. We have title, people! This virus must be quarantined, and special forces trained in biological warfare are being deployed. Gang-du isn’t supposed to eat, as they will be running a gauntlet of tests on him the next day. Later that night, he gets a phone call…from his daughter Hyun-seo! She’s alive, but trapped in a sewer somewhere! The cops don’t believe that she called, so the family does what it must: ESCAPE! The entire escape sequence is pretty good, as they bust out dressed as doctors until caught, then have to make a mad dash for the elevator. Once in the parking garage, they have to run to the van waiting for them courtesy of the local mafia. Everything is fine once they are inside and begin driving, until they realize they left the sister Nam-ju behind! So now the van is driving around the parking area trying to get close to her, while some security guards pursue trying to stop them. The family picks her up and goes down the exit ramps, round and round, as one guard chases them on foot all the way down. The goofy music added makes the scene even more hilarious. Afterwards, the mafia charges Grandpa $11,400 for the escape and for weapons, a map, and a waste truck provided for access to the biohazard area where the Creature is.

Using the truck, the Park family dresses in the two biohazard suits (Nam-il and Nam-ju have to hide in the back seat under blankets, with Nam-il complaining all the while) as the alert goes out for the missing family, which are described as “infected.” The army has no problem waving them through, but they are stopped by the man coordinating the cleanup measures, who even recognizes them. However, he’s not after turning them in, he’s upset that their group was added to the list last minute for cleanup (due to the mafia.) They give him the change that Gang-du was saving for a new cell phone as a bribe and drive off. They begin their search of the miles and miles and miles of sewers around the Han River. While crawling through dark sewers in the rain while a monster is on the loose, of course they are going to get paranoid. They end up shooting into the dark at a time or two. They cross paths with two young boys, but do not realize it, as the boys are sneaking past them heading to the river where the food stands are, looking for food, as they are street children.

The two kids are brothers, and the youngest is named Se-joo (don’t get too attached to the older one.) They end up breaking into the same food stand that the Park family owns. The older brother keeps Se-joo from taking some money, telling him they are only after food, they are not thieves. This is the Korea tradition of Seo-ri – Right of the Hungry. They leave, backpacks full, when suddenly…MONSTER!!!

The Park family then stops at their snack shack for the night, getting some food. Hyun-seo is there! Not really, only in spirit, as the family gives her food despite her not really being there. The Creature returns to the sewer to drop off the boys in the body pit, and Se-joo is still alive. Hyun-seo grabs him and helps hide him in a pipe further down.

Later, Gang-du falls asleep again, while Grandpa Hie-bong tells the siblings that when he was young, Gang-du was smart, but Grandpa was never home and the mom had gone, so Gang-du was all alone, and Gang-du probably had to do Seo-ri to stay fed. Missing the meals meant he missed protein at a critical time, so that’s why he sleeps. The speech given by Hie-bong is delivered great, as his regret for his actions when he was younger shine through. Gang-du wakes up, as the creature is right outside, drinking the rain. They aim a weapon and fire, hitting it. It charges the shack, knocking it on its side. The Parks fire again, and the monster falls off and slumps to the ground. It’s not quite dead, but Nam-il spoils a close-up kill and the monster runs. They chase it toward the bridge, firing as they run. They run out of ammo, except Gang-du has one shot left. Grandpa takes the gun, he’ll use it while the rest get into the truck and go, as the authorities are coming, attracted by the gunfire. Grandpa Hie-bong aims and fires, except there isn’t a bullet left. He turns and waves, then is knocked in the head by the Creature, and then tossed around by its tail as the family looks on in horror. Gang-du runs down to him and tells his siblings to leave, the Creature swims off and Gang-du is arrested.

Newsbreak: Donald has died, and the government is going to deploy Agent Yellow (what could THAT be named after?), an American antibiological agent that will kill all life within dozens of kilometers (except it doesn’t does this, and by the end of the film it only makes you somewhat sick if it is dumped all over you. Either the translation screwed up or the media is wrong again. The news also reports that Gang-du is experiencing symptoms similar to the common cold. Meanwhile, everyone in Korea is wearing surgical masks, afraid of the Creature’s disease, and they start getting very nervous around coughers.

Nam-il is sneaking around the city, meeting up with an old college friend of his who works for the cell phone company who will help him trace the call records to find out what cell tower was nearest to where Hyun-seo called from. The college friend lets slip that he is in debt, and keeps asking about his sister Nam-ju. I’m totally not suspicious in the slightest. Of course it is a trap, but Nam-il manages to find the location of the cell tower before it is sprung, and he escapes the pursuers. First by putting a paperclip around the prongs of an electric cord and plugging it in, shorting out the lights (Does this works in real life?), and then sneaking out the side doors, locking the rest inside. Downstairs, the cops are arriving from all directions, so Nam-il has to hang off an overpass to avoid detection. He tries to drop down, but the fall is too far and he gets hurt. Before he passes out he manages to text his sister Nam-ju the location of the cell tower and then passes out.

Nam-ju has had quite a day herself. She spent the night sleeping inside a connection on a suspension bridge, and then searched the sewers all day. Taking a break back at the food stand, she plugs in her phone to see she’s got a text from her brother with the exact location of the cell call. She rushes to the nearby sewer area, only to get knocked aside by the monster and into a crevice as she’s making a call to Gang-du giving the location. She also loses consciousness.

Gang-du is at a hospital, but drugs fail to knock him out, so the nurses just take tissue samples while he is awake. A White Guy with crossed eyes comes in and questions him about his daughter being alive, seeming to believe him, but it turns out the White Guy thinks he has gone delusional and the virus is in his brain. The White Guy confides to his Korean translator that Donald died of shock and has no evidence of a virus, so they must drill Gang-du’s brain to get a sample of the virus. Which White Guy is crazier, this dude or the dust hater?

In the sewer, Hyun-seo is making a clothes ladder to try to escape with, but after throwing it the end is too far our of reach. She and Se-joo keep busy by saying what food they would like to eat once they get out, Hyun-seo picks “a cold beer.” The Creature returns before they can try to jump to the ladder, and pukes a TON of bones into the sewer pit, then starts to eat the bodies stored there, and notices the kids hiding in the pipe to the side. Having been drilled in the brain, Gang-du wakes up and pulls a Sarah Conner from Terminator 2, using a syringe as a weapon, except he has his own blood in it, threatening people with the non-existent virus. They panic and back off, and he makes it to an ambulance and heads back to the river.

Nam-il wakes up under the overpass, a Homeless Guy having put him on a mattress. Nam-il grabs some of the Homeless Guy’s bottles to use as weapons, but the Homeless Guy will only let him use them if he gets to go along, as he has nothing else to do today (and he smacks one over Nam-il’s head for being so rude as to grab his stuff.) They take a cab to the river while Nam-il and Homeless Guy pour gasoline into the bottles in the backseat (as the cabbie starts to get worried.) By the river, protesters have come to try to stop the release of Agent Yellow, which could poison the area. Some of them wear shirts that say “Free Park Kang-doo.”

Meanwhile in the sewer, the Creature is asleep, and their may or may not be an egg or two on the ground. The movie is not clear, and never discusses it again. Hyun-seo decides she will try to run up the back of the Creature and grab the clothes rope. She tries, only the Creature grabs her with its tail and sets her back down. The Creature then turns around and charges the two kids. We cut to Gang-du having just arrived in the sewer; he sees the bones in the pit, goes down the clothes ladder and finds his daughter’s nametag. Up top, he sees the monster walk by with his daughter’s hand sticking out of its mouth.

Nam-ju wakes up, gets out of the crevice she was in and grabs her bow and arrows. The Creature is attracted to the sound of all the protestors across the river while Nam-ju and Gang-du reconnect. The speaker announcer across the river says that Agent Yellow will be released in five minutes. The protestors run as the Creature charges them. The Agent Yellow is dispensed, and it is a yellow powder that goes all over, dumping right on top of the Creature. The Creature starts having a reaction, falling over and thrashing about. A police officer starts to shoot at it, but Gang-du stops him, trying to save his daughter. He opens the Creature’s mouth, and pulls on Hyun-seo’s hand, which pulls out his daughter and Se-joo, but it is just too late.

Gang-du is rightfully mad now, and grabs a sign pole, attacking the Creature with it, as the Creature has recovered from the Agent Yellow. Nam-il arrives and has his Molotov cocktails ready for action. After Gang-du is knocked aside, Nam-il starts lobbing his Featherston Fizzes (if you read Harry Turtledove) but has terrible aim. Nam-il manages to hit every support pillar around, but couldn’t hit the Creature if it was right in front of him. Homeless Guy sneaks up top, and dumps a can of gasoline onto the Creature. Nam-il has one Molotov left, but he drops it. No worries, as Nam-ju uses a piece to make a flaming arrow, and shoots the Creature right in the eye. It bursts into flames, and starts running around. Seeing the river, it heads for it, only Gang-du steps in the way with the sign pole, and the monster runs right into it, and is run through its mouth. (The Creature’s mouth may or may not be based on a vagina.) The Creature is dead.

Gang-du goes to the boy that came out with his daughter, asking if he knew his daughter and was there at the end. The boy Se-joo wakes up, but Hyun-seo does not. It’s now winter and Gang-du is manning the food shack by the river, complete with gun in case anything new appears. Pictures of his daughter and the wanted poster of the family line the insides, and Se-joo lives with him, they have dinner together as the news talks about how the response to the crisis was mishandled. We end as the snow takes us away to the peacefulness outside.

In conclusion, see the freaking thing!

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Written by Tars Tarkas

Tars Tarkas

Runs this joint!