October is Halloween movie month! Having been completely deprived of any kind of Halloween experience growing up, I now spend 31 days celebrating with film and TV. I like to shoot for a mix of old and new, horror and comedy, from the slightly spooky to the totally terrifying to the just plain weird. Each day of October I’ll reviewing one of these ventures in the realm of the creepy and supernatural. Some will be high quality cinema and some will require large amounts of alcohol to survive. Stock up on seasonal beer and Fireball-apple jello shots and join me! A warning, though – unless the review is of a very recent release, HERE BE SPOILERS.
The Host (2006)
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Byun Hee-bong, Park Hae-il, Bae Doona and Go Ah-sung
Synopsis: In Seoul, Hee-Bong the owner of a snack bar in a park along the Han River, his immature adult son, Gang-Du, and his granddaughter, Hyun-Seo are going about their business when a fish-like monster, implied to be the result of Americans on the nearby Army Base dumping chemicals into the river, begins attacking people on the river bank. Hyun-Seo is taken by the monster, despite Gang-Du’s attempt to save his daughter, and presumed dead. Gang-Du and his father reunite with his other siblings, Nam-Joo, a professional archer and Nam-Il, who is an unemployed ex-activist and an alcoholic, at a public memorial for the victims of the attack. There they, and all the other people present at the attack are rounded up by the government to be disinfected and quarantined. The Korean government has falsely put out that the creature is carrying a deadly virus in hopes of keeping everyone away from it and the river area, and is spraying disinfectant everywhere it went. While in hospital, Gang-Du gets a short cellphone call from Hyun-Seo and its revealed she’s alive in a sewer that the creature is using as a sort of larder for victims. The family break of out the hospital and go on the run to look for her. The Hee-Bong is killed by the monster, partially due to Gang-Du’s incompetence, but the siblings eventually find the place where Hyun-Seo was being kept, although the monster has swallowed her again. Just then, the government releases a gas called Agent Yellow designed to to kill the monster. Gang-Du pulled Hyun-Seo from its mouth, still clutching a little boy who was in the sewer with her, and the three siblings finish the weakened creature off. Sadly, it is too late for Hyun-Seo, but Gang-Du is able to save the little boy, Se-Joo who comes to live with him at the snack bar.
This is the movie that sold me on monster movies. When I saw The Host, it totally turned my idea of what a monster movie could be upside down. Now, I loved a good episode of MST3K as much as the next girl, and my husband owns every Godzilla movie made, so it’s not like I was unfamiliar with the genre or didn’t understand the attraction. So when my husband suggested we go see this Korean monster movie he’d heard great things about in this backwater theater an hour away from our house I was game, but expecting something far more akin to Daimajin than what I got.
The Host is a lot different things. It’s a monster movie, definitely. But it’s also a movie about a family, a family of, well, losers, but a family that loves each other and would do anything to save their little girl. Everything the monster does is seen through the lens of this family, and unlike some failed attempts to create empathy for a family caught up the wreckage of a monster or natural disaster, we actually care deeply what happens to these people. In addition to the family story, it’s a cutting indictment of the paranoia and incompetence of the Korean Government, as well as the arrogance and carelessness of the American military. Finally, it’s also extremely funny, extremely heart-breaking, and, did I mention, completely gorgeous?
Let’s start with the monster. We see it early on the movie, up close, and in broad daylight. And we keep seeing it until the end. The tactic of not fully revealing the creature till the end of a movie, keeping it obscured or in shadow much of the time, can be an effective to heighten tension and mystery, as well as a way to reduce a special effects budget or hide a lower quality design. But the Host went another way, giving us a detailed, intricately imagined, and realistic creature unlike any we’ve seen before, up close and personal. Nearly a decade later, it still looks fantastic and moves smoothly and believably. They also chose not to make it a giant, city stomping creature but something about the size of a school bus, which somehow adds to the menace. It’s not just mindlessly causing havoc – it’s hunting you.
In some ways, the story of the family is quite predictable. The immature dad, more like a not-very-bright older brother to his daughter (to the point that his biggest contribution to her raising seems to be saving dimes in an old noodle cup to buy her a new phone), has to grow up and be a man to save her. The two siblings, both disasters in their own way, have to find their courage and use their unique skills to save the day. And the grandfather, just trying to hold everyone together, sacrifices himself for his family. But the execution and the committed performances of the actors elevate this story out of the realm of the predictable and make it something truly special.
Although the characters all grow during the course of the movie, they remain very true to themselves, which makes the growth believable. Gang-Du does the most growing, going from helpless and hapless and hopeless to determined and, ultimately, effective. But even from the beginning he may have lacked for brains and been ridiculous, but he never lacked for heart or courage. He was always going to do anything to save his daughter. And the death of Hyun-Seo, who is not just an object to be rescued, but a well developed character whom we spend a chunk of the movie in the sewer with, is shocking. We see her trying to save herself and Se-Joo, even courageously using the sleeping monster itself as a springboard to try to launch herself to safety and to have her die after all that, after all her family has been through is emotionally devastating, but also a refreshing choice. Things don’t always work out the way we want, no matter how hard we try, but something can still be salvaged, even if it’s not what we were hoping to salvage.
Partially inspired by a real incident, this movie ought to be unbearably grim, really, but the humor, smartly deployed, rescues it from bleakness without veering too far into farce. It’s a tight line to walk, but the actors and script manage it well, never coming off as grating or inappropriate in moments where more solemnity is called for. Some of the jokes I feel like I was missing some cultural context for, but plenty were very accessible to an American viewer. I’ve seen a lot of monster movies, good and bad, foreign and American, willingly and under duress, but this is hand- down my favorite and ranks pretty high on my all-time favorite movies list. Even if you don’t think you like “these types” of movies, take the plunge and give it a try. You might change your mind.
Oh, and a note for first time viewers. Don’t be lazy, watch it with subtitles and not with dubbing. The voice actors do a credible job, but I found the translation to be dumbed down so that it changed the perceived personalities of the characters in a very unattractive way and pushed the humor over the edge into obnoxious, spoilign a lot of the enjoyable moments. It’s worth the effort to read the subtitles, and you really should be giving this beautiful movie your full attention anyway.
Quality: 10 out of 10 kaiju. There isn’t a thing I would change about this movie.
Entertainment Value: 9 out of 10 bowls of cup ramen. Fun overall, but it’s still sad that Hyun-Seo dies.
Bonus Treehouse of Horror Review: Treehouse of Horror V
The fifth entry in the series is solid all the way through, parodying The Shining, A Sound of Thunder, and Soylent Green in Turn. There isn’t a bad sketch among the three and they are loaded with memorable moments from “No TV and no beer make Homer go crazy” to the dance scene in the epilogue after green fog turns everyone inside out. The first sketch features Homer in the Jack Nicholson role in “The Shinning”, with Bart as the gifted little boy and Mr. Burns at least tangentially responsible for Homer’s breakdown by removing all the entertainment from the mansion. The third sketch is straight-up horror as kids disappear from the school one by one while mysterious new foods like “Uter-braten” appear in the cafeteria and the teachers grow fatter by the day.
But the middle sketch has a special place in my heart. A Sound of Thunder is one of my favorite Bradbury stories to begin with, and when Homer goes back in time by accident while trying to fix a toaster he accidentally changes his present in increasingly bizarre and hilarious ways, from a world where Ned Flanders is ruler of earth to one where doughnuts fall from the sky and the Simpsons are rich. Homer’s frustrated rampage through the prehistoric world, stamping on every butterfly he can find, sends me into fits every single time.
Kang and Kodos Watch: Replacing Peabody and Sherman during Homer’s time travelling in the second sketch.