“Please don’t cut me off. My words are words too! Why won’t you listen to my words?”
The ‘monster’ in Monster Movies is never really the monster. You know this already.
It’s a fun sentence, say it out loud. Here’s some more to chew on: the monsters of Monster Movies are rarely the true villains of their own films – whether that’s Frankenstein’s lovesick monster or Mothra or the horny monsters of Monster Prom. The real monsters are always somewhere else, profiting off the chaos. Whether that’s metaphorically-speaking or not is left up to the filmmaker, but Godzilla is never just a radioactive dinosaur.
The big guys are just the catalyst for all the other stuff.
The creatures in Creature Features are (almost) never the true villains – they’re a deadly hazard meant to destabilize their environment. Just like Zombies, the Monster is there to dissolve society just enough for the uncomfortable parts of human nature to shine through. With the status quo thrown into disorder, conflicts bubble to the surface, unlikely alliances are forged and metaphors emerge. These stories are always told by (and about!) human beings, after all. Horror movies would be pretty boring otherwise.
Like Zombies, Monsters are a setting in which we tell stories about ourselves.
‘Gwoemul’ isn’t the monster in The Host, either. He isn’t even the ‘host’, whoever that ends up being. He’s just a gigantic, slimy nightmare that gives everything else an excuse to happen.
There’s no way to review The Host in 2021 without acknowledging that Bong Joon-ho won the Oscar for Best Picture for Parasite in 2019. This is that Bong Joon-ho: Snowpiercer Bong Joon-ho. Prior to Parasite, it was totally possible to recognize Bong Joon-ho primarily for his work on this gorgeously shot, wicked-smart and darkly comedic film. Or Okja. Those days are gone and the cat is out of the bag: Bong Joon-ho is transparently one of the finest filmmakers of our generation.
That’s going to make writing about this 15 year-old Horror movie either a lot harder or a lot easier, depending how you look at it. It certainly makes it easier to recommend. If you only watch one genre film this year by a dude that went on to win Best Picture, Director, Screenplay and International Film all at once, you know which one it should be. He’s very, very good at this.
The Host (2006) – not to be confused with Host, The Host, HOSTS or The Host – is a number of things at once. It’s a pitch-black comedy and a disaster film. It’s also a biting political satire in the shape of a Monster Movie, masquerading as a dysfunctional family dramedy. It’s all of those, but maybe in a different order. It’s hard to tell. There are moments it feels like watching two or three films films at once, especially once the narratives diverge and the humor thins out toward the end of its two-hour runtime. The Host has all the room it needs to stretch its legs thematically and narratively, so you’ll want to get comfortable too. It’s a long one.
Before it can become any of those things though, before the title card even drops, The Host is a short film. The following might sound familiar.
Two men stand in a dusty laboratory. One of them, an American, condescends brutally to his Korean subordinate. He insists the man pour a mass quantity of formaldehyde down the lab sink to dispose of it. The American says it’s dirty – which of course it can’t be, it’s deeply corrosive. Mr. Kim, the Korean lab technician, refuses and attempts to stand his ground. He points out that the drains flow directly into the Han River. People live on the Han River. The American, growing angry, turns to him and orders in a withering tone:
“”That’s right Mr. Kim – but the Han River is very broad. So let’s try to be ‘broad-minded’ about this, yes?”
Mr. Kim reluctantly dumps the formaldehyde in The Host’s first of many, many breathtakingly photographed scenes. Thick, toxic vapors gush upwards past his mask and goggles.
Down below, a chemical reaction begins to take place.
We’re never told where, exactly, Gwoemul comes from. We only learn his name in the credits. It’s implied that the formaldehyde brings the horrible fish-thing into existence, but we’re never told for sure. We don’t really need to know.
What we do know is that the formaldehyde incident really happened. In the year 2000, a Korean mortuary technician in Seoul was compelled by the American military to dump a mass quantity of formaldehyde directly into the sewer system. The result, as you might expect, was an ecological nightmare and a major news story. Bong Joon-ho took inspiration from it when he was writing the screenplay for The Host, so he included a fictionalized recreation in full. Then, he took some liberties with the consequences.
So while we can’t know exactly what gave Gwoemul his unwieldy, contradictory set of limbs and horribly sharp teeth, we can start taking some guesses what he might represent.
We never return to the lab. Instead, we follow the formaldehyde downstream.
Park Gang-du works with his father on the shores of the Han River. Together, they run a convenience shop dwelling frequented by tourists and affluent locals alike. The two are poor: Gang-du scrapes change together to try and buy his daughter a new cell phone, but can’t keep himself awake long enough to focus on anything. His brother is an alcoholic college graduate and former activist, and their sister is an archer with a bad habit of freezing up during competition. Gang-du’s preteen daughter, Park Hyun-seo, is understanding about her father’s situation but can’t help feeling embarrassed by her family. The short period of time we spend with Gang-du, his father and his daughter is punctuated by a shared sense of pride for his archer-sister’s accomplishments – but there’s no escaping the fact that they live out of a tiny convenience-trailer on the edge of a river. Life is tough and limited, and encroaching poverty doesn’t make it easier. Gang-du is trying his best, but it’s obvious he can’t keep it together. His entire family is marginalized in a very literal sense.
Then something comes out of the river and turns their world inside out.
For the brief periods that Gwoemul dominates the screen, he’s glorious. This is peak 2006 monster effects, with CG that’s just dated enough to be a little distracting. Bong Joon-ho sneaks around the limitations of the special effects by shooting him from a distance, or in harsh sunlight that washes out the digital smoothness of his skin. The Host wasn’t a small budget film, but the effects hold up remarkably well considering the 15 years since release. Gwoemul is always shot in motion, he’s slippery like a fish and constantly dashing in and out of the water to feed. When he needs to be on screen he doesn’t linger: he’s around just long enough to turn Korea inside out. Then he’s gone for nearly half the film while the impact of his appearance ripples out across society.
And does it ever.
The Host is Park Gang-du’s story, so I won’t ruin any of it here. His life is a comedy of errors that slowly becomes a tragedy, and then something more. Tragedy and comedy nearly always accompany one another for Gang-du’s family, and a masterful performance by Song Kang-ho lends even the most bizarre scenes a sense of emotional depth (and there are many!). I say this with love: there are some moments The Host feels like a classic Horror film, and others where it feels like a Wes Anderson movie. It’s also the rare creature-feature that might actually get you to cry, if you’re susceptible to meaningful human drama. And I know I am.
One more thought on Gwoemul, though.
Gwoemul is a problem. He’s a giant mutant tadpole-thing with at least 30% more skull and tooth than you’d want. He has a prehensile tail that’s very scary, and he kills people. That isn’t up for debate. He’s a creature for sure, but he isn’t The Host‘s villain.
Like so many Monster classics (looking at you, Godzilla), Gwoemul is the catalyst, but it’s the complete inability of the world around him to reckon with his actions that makes him a catastrophe. The Korean government responds to the monster threat by instigating a quarantine and lockdown measures, but it’s the American government that fixates on the notion of a virus spread by the creature. While Korea spins its wheels attempting to contain – but never directly address! – the threat downtown, the same government that likely created the creature in the first place demands control over the narrative of its ongoing destruction. In their minds, the problem doesn’t need to be solved so long as it can be defined. So when unlikely survivors like Park Gang-du do emerge with stories to tell, who believes them, who will help?
Who would have reason to?
Gwoemul dissolves people, but at least he doesn’t fail them.
The Host is a brilliantly shot and remarkably funny film, one that manages to push all the Monster Movie buttons and then take everything a step further into genuinely cerebral territory. It’s a film about Capitalism – isn’t everything? – but there’s so much more to it. There’s so much more to Park Gang-du and his little misfit family.
Watch it on a night you’re craving something thrilling, goofy and thoughtful all at once. You’ll like it a lot.
This has been entry 12/31 of The Long Hallowe’en 2021!