- Memories of Murder (2003)
- Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
- Antarctic Journal (2005)
- Memories of Murder (2003)
- Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)
- Joint Security Area (2000)
- The Foul King (2000)
- Spring Bears Love (2003)
- Tube (2003)
- Take Care of My Cat (2003)
Available on DVD from YesAsia:
Don't you just hate it? You're sitting on the shores of the Han River, basking in the warm glow of the sun, the family by your side, without a care in the world. All around you people are enjoying a well deserved, albeit too short, bout of freedom from the troubles of daily life and taking the time to just enjoy themselves. Everything is perfect. Everything is just right. But then something happens. Suddenly without warning a multi-limbed mutant creature the size of a truck emerges from the waters. It mows through the crowd and kills everything in sight. It makes its way towards you and before you know it, it snatches from your very arms the one thing that makes life worth living. Your child. Then, as suddenly as it appeared, it re-enters the water and disappears into the deep. Naught but the ripples on the water and the cold empty space in your heart reminds you that it was ever there...
Such is the plight of our hero, the simple-minded bum Park Gang-du, who works with his father in a food stand on the shores of the Han River. By his side is his beautiful 13 old daughter Hyun-seo, the light of his life, and when the aforementioned creature attacks and snatches her from his hands Gang-du is beyond consolation. What will he do now?
The government is quick to intervene. They block off the area, quarantine everybody that were present on the shore and do various other seedy things of the kind you expect from a government in a B-grade Sci-fi movie.
Gang-du is joined by his sister and brother who mourn the loss of Hyun-seo and blames Gang-du for his carelessness. Then suddenly his phone rings. At the other end of the line is the desperate voice of Hyun-seo who manage to say that she's alive and well, and has been brought to the creature's lair somewhere in the sewers. Then her battery runs out.
With new-found determination the Park family escape the clutches of the government, and embark on a reckless mission to find little Hyun-seo before its too late.
Let me be blunt: I don't get it. I don't get why this film has been so well received. I don't get why people regard it as some sort of brilliant reinvention of the monster-movie genre, or a harsh comment on the state of things. To me it's a simple B-movie, with a really cool CGI monster.
I mean, just look at the opening: An almost laughable flashback sequence in which an evil American scientist (is there another kind?) orders his Korean subordinate to dump some highly toxic chemicals in the Han River, the very chemicals that four years later produce a marine mutant creature of epic proportions. Save for the glossy look, this is straight out of a 50's movie!
One thing I'll give the film: The monster is damn near flawless. The design is inspired, it moves in a completely new way, and the effects used to bring it life are outstanding (save for one or two dodgy effect shots). The best moments come when the creature suddenly strikes, with absolutely no warning in an impressive display of ferociousness. The opening attack on the shoes of Han is an amazing sequence that'll take your breath away. Other show-stopping scenes in the film include those that center on the little girl caught in the monster's lair - a truly frightening image to behold - and a mad chase scene where the Parks attempts to kill the creature, but one of them ends up paying the ultimate price. Not the only time when the film caught me off guard with its cruelty.
So the monster is cool, but the human characters are another matter. Frankly there's nobody in the entire cast that I like. Gang-du is the worst. He appears to have been dropped on his head when he was a kid, he's a pathetic slob, and exceedingly obnoxious to boot. The rest of the family is only slightly less annoying, and the supposedly oh-so-cute-in-a-school-uniform Hyun-seo left me completely indifferent.
At the risk of stating the obvious, a monster movie works best when the monster is mostly hidden, which means that the film must be largely driven by the characters. They have to be strong and easy to identify with. That's why "Jaws" or "Aliens" worked so well, not because of the rubber monsters, but because of the genuine affection we developed for the characters. I developed no such affection for the characters here, they just got on my nerves, and it didn't take long before I started rooting for the monster.
My biggest problem with this film, however, is the sense of mood and genre.
It's one thing to jump genres mid movie, not an unusual occurrence in a Korean film, but to be genre-confused is a entirely different matter. I appreciate a quirky offbeat film as much as the next guy, but certain genres shouldn't be messed with. Mixing slapstick with a horror film doesn't work. It takes the edge of the horror, and at the end of the day the humor doesn't work either. Am I supposed to be laughing when an entire family, mourning the loss of a loved one, is suddenly rolling around on the floor in a scene that would fit a Marx Brothers movie better than a monster movie?
Or what about the scene, where our hero is subjected to a potentially lethal brain drilling operation, played out like it belongs in one of those god-awful early Peter Jackson films. The scene occurs right after Gang-du learns a vital piece of information concerning his daughter, and should have been treated with dignity, instead I was snickering through the whole thing.
"The Host" makes several such wrong turns along the way. To begin with that's just a bit annoying, but after a while, the accumulated effect of those detours began to wear me down. Add to that secret government plots, which amount to very little, and the fact that this doesn't really qualify as a horror film, since it's missing that overall feeling of uneasiness (there're plenty of shocks, but no actual scares), what you have is a messy unrewarding film that should have been... well, different.
When "Jaws" by the last scene is reduced to an all or nothing fight between a man and a shark it creates an almost primal sense of purpose. The reason for the clarity in the final sequence is that the film has a clear set-up from the word go. It's always clear what the story is about, and what's at stake. In fact "Jaws" can be reduced to the line: "Kill the shark. Save the summer. Save the town"
I only wish "The Host" had provided us with an equally clear mission statement. Instead of being "Kill the monster. Save the little girl", "The Host" gets into an awful mess along the way. There's a subplot concerning a virus, which is dropped unceremoniously towards the end, when the filmmakers discover just how superfluous it is. The hero is caught by the authorities and is absent from the story for a while, and early on the film even tries to dupe us into believing that the little girl is dead (of course she isn't), and wastes a lot of time with that. "The Host" is missing that clear build-up, and as a result the finale is an equally muddled sequence where several ideas clash uncomfortably. That's not good in any movie, but in a monster movie it's particularly problematic.
"The Host" was hyped intensely from the early days of conception, it was a runaway hit at The Cannes Festival, and it made the biggest splash ever at the local boxoffice. That's all very impressive, but when all is said and done this is just a cheesy B-movie with a CGI monster, and I have a hard time understanding how it can be regarded as anything else. There's nothing wrong with a B-movie, mind you, it can be a great thing to watch. Hell, sometimes more fun than an A-list film.
Still, watching "The Host" left me frustrated. I was expecting something unique and fresh. Something truly scary. What I got had more in common with one of those generic direct-to-video monster films, than anything else, which is to say that it's sometimes curious and entertaining, but nothing more. And often a lot less.