As a long-standing fan of horror movies, I was looking forward to the new Korean movie “The Host,” which supposedly was a mixture of “Jaws” and “Alien”. Although it is a much more modest film than these Hollywood blockbusters, it is just as entertaining. In some ways, it is like a number of the Korean films I have seen over the past five years or so. The main characters are members of a darkly comic, dysfunctional family of the sort found in “The Quiet Family,” which after buying a country lodge is disconcerted to discover that guests are invariably moved to commit suicide one after another. The plot consists of them trying to dispose of the bodies in the most creative fashion.
“The Host” also has the same kind of anti-Americanism seen in “Welcome to Dongmakgol,” a flick set during the Korean War that features South Korean soldiers making common cause with their brothers to the North against a rampaging US force.
“The Host,” in addition to the obvious homage to “Jaws” and “Alien,” really hearkens back to the original “Godzilla”:
The original ”Gojira” was never intended as a conventional monster-on-the-loose movie. Nor did it resemble the farcical rubber-suit wrestling matches or the domesticated movies (with Godzilla cast as a mammoth household pet) that the series degenerated into during the 1960′s and 70′s.
As the historian William Tsutsui reminded us in last year’s cult classic, ”Godzilla on My Mind,” the 1954 movie was a dark, poetic production that dealt openly with Japanese misgivings about the nuclear menace, environmental degradation and the traumatic experience associated with World War II.
The nuclear annihilations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh in mind when the famous Toho Company embarked on the ”Gojira” project in 1954. But Japanese fear of nuclear catastrophe was given fresh impetus in the spring of that year, when the United States detonated a huge hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll in the central Pacific. Japanese fishermen aboard a trawler were exposed to nuclear fallout. Japanese consumers panicked and declined to eat fish after irradiated tuna was found to have slipped into the nation’s food supply.
In the film, the H-bomb blast awakens and irradiates a dinosaur that has somehow escaped extinction. The reptile strides ashore and begins his trademark devastation of the Tokyo landscape. The nuclear antecedents were not at all lost on Honda, a World War II veteran who passed through the bombed-out city of Hiroshima and witnessed the damage firsthand. Honda later said that he envisioned the fiery breath of Godzilla as a way of ”making radiation visible,” and of showing the world that nuclear power could never be tamed.
He also told an interviewer: ”Believe it or not, we naively hoped that the end of Godzilla was going to coincide with the end of nuclear testing.”
(NY Times, May 1, 2005)
The opening scene in “The Host” takes place in 1990. We see two men in white coats in a lab on an American base in Seoul, one an American and the other a Korean. The American orders the Korean to dump dozens of bottles of formaldehyde into the sink. When the Korean objects that such dumping is against the law and will likely impact the nearby Han River, the American tells him that he is in charge and to obey him or else.
Six years later we spot two fishermen in the Han River in Seoul. One discovers an odd little creature with a tail swimming nearby, a kind of overgrown tadpole, and attempts unsuccessfully to capture it in a coffee cup.
Later that year, we meet the members of the Park family, who own a sandwich stand/convenience store (more like a shack, actually) on the banks of the Han River. It consists of their elderly father, a widower named Hee-bong, and his three grown children. One of them, a bleached-blond slacker named Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), runs the stand with him but only after a fashion. He is practically narcoleptic. When we first meet him at the window of the stand, he is fast asleep totally oblivious to any approaching customers. When two eventually step up to the window, they steal the coins from beneath his nose. Gang-du, who is separated from his wife (understandably so), has a young daughter named Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko) who retains affection for her father even if he is too broke to buy her a top-of-the-line cell phone.
Gang-du, on the job
Gang-du has a brother named Nam-il (Park Hae-il), an unemployed white-collar worker who treasures his youthful days as a protestor against the Korean dictatorship just like aging ex-SDS’ers in the U.S. might feel a similar sense of nostalgia. They have a sister named Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na), an aspiring Olympian archer who is habitually close to being disqualified for taking too much time to release the arrow. Without revealing too much detail, we can say that Nam-il’s past experience with hurling Molotov cocktails and Nam-joo’s archery skills prove essential in defeating the beast that has begun to wreak havoc in the Han River, like the shark in “Jaws.”
When the creature finally appears, the crowd along the river reacts with “oohs” and “aahs” rather than shrieks, when they first spot the creature (a fanged sixty foot amalgam of fish and lizard as ugly and as homicidal as the creature in “Alien”) doing what appears to be gymnastic flips with its tail beneath the girders of a bridge spanning the river, like a monkey swinging from a tree.
When the creature finally descends from the bridge and begins to careen along the riverbanks gobbling up everyone he can get his claws on, the mood changes immediately to “Jaws” on the beach. One of the victims is Gang-du’s young daughter, who is not devoured on the spot but brought back to its lair in the sewers near the river as a kind of future midnight snack.
The rest of the film consists of the Park family trying to rescue Hyun-seo who managed to make one phone call to her dad until her crappy cell phone conked out.
Not only do they have to do combat with the fiendish river creature, they have to outwit a joint Korean-American military/epidemiological task force that insists that the creature is a product of some exotic virus rather than a mutation brought on by the spillage of formaldehyde into the Han River. They treat anybody exposed to the creature as a potential threat to the safety of the general population, including Gang-du who is taken into custody at a military hospital and forced to endure fiendish medical experiments to identify the non-existent virus.
The Americans decide to wipe out the creature using Agent Yellow, a highly toxic chemical that is certainly meant to evoke Agent Orange. Just to make sure that we know where the Americans are coming from, director Joon-ho Bong makes sure to include footage of GI’s on the rampage in Iraq.
The final 30 minutes of the film are a dizzying confrontation that brings together the Park family, the creature, the American-Korean task force, radical students bent on preventing Agent Yellow from being used and Gang-du’s daughter who is probably the most capable in the entire family.
This movie has all the joys of B-movies of the 1950s with off-kilter radical-minded comedy. It is playing now at a couple of theaters in New York City and in theaters around the country. It is excellent.
Thanks to Tony who brought to my attention in a comment on this review that the film is based on an actual incident:
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Wisconsin), July 25, 2000 Tuesday FINAL EDITION
U.S. apologizes for river dumping
Seoul, South Korea — The U.S. military issued a public apology Monday for dumping formaldehyde into the Han River, a main source of drinking water for Seoul’s 12 million people.
“I officially express to you my deepest apology for the incident,” Lt. Gen. Daniel J. Petrosky, commander of the 8th U.S. Army, said in a statement.
Earlier this month, the military admitted releasing 20 gallons of formaldehyde into the Han River in February, but officials said they believed the formaldehyde caused no harm to public health, since it was treated in the sewage system and diluted with waste water.