Monster Hunt Family Therapy
By Peter Wong
San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art provided the setting for a screening of one of the year’s best monster-on-the-loose films. The occasion was Opening Night for the San Francisco Film Society’s first International Animation Showcase. This mini-festival assembled a collection of animated films from around the world. The Host, the monster film in question, hails from South Korea.
Though The Host is a live action film, the titular creature is the product of computer animation. San Francisco-based computer animation company The Orphanage brought the mutant monster to life. Before the film’s screening, representatives from The Orphanage presented slides and video footage of the creation process. Attendees saw early sketches of the creature. Also presented was reference material such as gaping mouths of terrestrial creatures and motion footage of lizards running. Scrupulous care was taken to ensure the audience didn’t see the finished product before the creature’s first on-screen appearance.
The Host begins in 2000. On a US military officer’s order, several dozen bottles of very dangerous chemicals get poured down a drain leading to the Han River. The effects of this military pollution don’t become readily apparent until six years later. One Sunday, a mutant amphibian emerges from the river to cause lots of property damage and kill dozens of unfortunate victims. The creature snatches Park Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung) during the ensuing panic. The schoolgirl presumably becomes yet another piece of monster kibble.
However, Hyun-seo’s father Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) receives a cell phone call from his daughter. The terrified girl tells him that the monster has trapped her in some sewer. Gang-du fails to enlist the authorities’ aid. The South Korean government thinks Gang-du is crazed with grief. It also believes the distraught father has been exposed to a deadly virus carried by the mutant. The American government will not help out at all. Despite these refusals, Gang-du is determined to rescue his daughter.
Gang-du’s only allies are the other members of the Park family. But it’s very clear the Park clan doesn’t come close to qualifying as a crack team of monster hunters. Gang-du’s father (Byeon Heui-bong) can barely handle physical activity. Brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il) is a former student activist who’s degenerated into a cynical and unemployed drunk. Sister Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na)’s archery skills are compromised by her unfortunate tendency to freeze under pressure. Gang-du himself suffers from noticeable mental retardation. In the words of Buffy’s Giles, "the Earth is doomed."
The effort to rescue Hyun-seo may drive The Host’s plot, but it’s clear that the film’s real struggles center on the Park family’s efforts to overcome their individual dysfunctions. The mutant monster does not serve as an obvious metaphor for the state of the Park family dynamic.
The Host’s fast moving and well-paced plot turns out to be one of the film’s strengths. Despite its somewhat daunting running time, the film never feels padded or gratuitous in its violence. This doesn’t mean the film is perfect. Subplots involving the infection’s victims and public hostility towards use of Agent Yellow remain unclear. However, by the point these flaws become issues, viewers may overlook them for the thrill of seeing the film’s very dramatic finale.
Thanks to the film’s music, the viewer learns not to take the film’s events too seriously. The musical soundtrack conveys an occasional sense of the absurdity of the crisis that has befallen the Han River area. The semi-farcical air makes the film’s political points that much greater. One could hold the US military morally responsible for indirectly creating the monster. But the film’s unstated assessment is that the American organization will not be punished for their role in creating the resulting panic. The incompetence of the South Korean first responders emphasizes the degree of the government’s lack of preparation. Then again, could any reasonable government have prepared for the arrival of a mutant monster?
The film’s titular creature is the obvious showstopper. Thanks to The Orphanage’s work, the casual viewer can look at the creature and believe such a freakish monstrosity could reasonably have come into existence. Despite its decidedly unusual appearance, The Host moves plausibly just like any other natural creature. The computer graphics work makes the creature look like a fixture in the environment. The only visual flaw comes at the finale, when the attempts to match computer animation to live action disaster look as if the animators lacked sufficient computer power to make the visuals appear seamless.
Though The Host may share some similarities to Jaws and Alien, comparing the South Korean film to the American action movies would do a disservice to the work of director Bong Joon-ho. The Host’s plausible whipsaw changes of tone never seem gratuitous or undisciplined.
Interested readers should catch the film when it arrives in their town. One suspects the inevitable Hollywood remake will definitely drop the anti-US government slams.