Movie of the Week: The Host

I recently mentioned Bong Joon-ho in my Criterion wishlist, and I’ll reiterate here how excited I am for his Snowpiercer to finally hit theaters this June. And unlike Shiran I don’t have much knowledge of or experience with foreign film except for the Korean New Wave. With all of that in mind, it seemed appropriate to add some Korean flavor to our Movie of the Week selections, specifically from Bong Joon-ho’s filmography, which brings us to The Host. A terrific, politically pointed and character-driven monster film, it is rightly one of the most successful films in South Korean history, and is both a great place to start exploring Korean film and a great example of how to craft a (serious-minded) tentpole adventure film.

The first thing that struck me as the movie progressed is that it’s a lot heavier and sadder than I remember it being. Bong is always careful to linger on the sadness inherent in the proceedings, both on the large scale (the tragedy of a random monster attack on a bunch of civilians) and the small (a dysfunctional family mourning a loss). Still though, the film mixes in a decent amount of humor to balance out the tragedy, with some of the more upsetting moments easily shifting into black comedy or ridiculous behavior. When you then layer in the blatant and pointed political commentary- a critique of both overbearing American interventionism and the Korean government’s ineffectual nature- you get a film performing a potentially messy juggling act, but at no point does any element of it feel out of place. Even with all of these different ideas and tones bouncing around, the film feels like one cohesive whole.

A huge asset in these tonal shift is the great central perf from Song Kang-ho, bringing a lot of pathos to a tragically bumbling figure. The dim-witted elder son of the family, whose daughter is abducted (and initially presumed eaten) by the monster, he is regularly chastised by the family for his mistakes, but Song makes him a very identifiable and likable character, even with all his missteps, and the arc he goes on over the film is very subtle. There is also great work done by Ah sung-ko as the missing daughter, playing a savvy and knowing girl who very believably grows into a great, engaging heroine in her own right by the end. The rest of the cast is very good as well, and make the most of their lesser screentime (including Doona Bae, whom American audiences might know from Cloud Atlas… but then again, maybe not). Perhaps most important is that regardless of the amount of screentime, each family member is given their own arc and emotional beats; it would be easy to argue that the protagonist of the film is the family as a whole, and that each of their individual character moments contributes to the overall growth and maturation of the family over the course of the film. It’s not as easy a thing to pull off as one might think, but Bong and his cast accomplish it very well.

With that being said, here’s Shiran’s reaction to The Host:

I have little to no background with Korean film, and because of that I unfairly came into The Host expecting a really well-made, scary monster movie. To be honest, a visceral part of me is sort of upset that that wasn’t what I got. I wasn’t emotionally prepared to watch the very real and touching consequences this family had to deal with, and I’m also not quite sure the tone of the first half of the movie really prepared me for the ending. That very likely is an intentional shift, moving the film from a popcorn monster flick to a searing analysis of American interventionism and its effect on citizens, but it still caused a not-so-favorable reaction for me at first. Nonetheless, I do really appreciate what the movie ended up saying, and I was wowed by the mastery of the visuals, music, and script. I’d probably embrace the film much more wholly on rewatch, and at the very least it’s made me really excited to check out more Korean films in this vein, which I’m sure was Brendan’s intent in the first place.

Next week it’s back to Shiran, and it looks like she’s pulling out the more dramatic guns this time around… tune in to see what she has planned!

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