If you were a witness to Bong Joon Ho’s historic victory at the Oscars this year, as he was the first to ever win Best Director, Best International Film, and Best Picture all in one night, this was a long time coming. Bong Joon Ho has managed to deliver so many cinematic gems over the last twenty years, including the painfully overlooked science fiction epic “Snowpiercer,” and 2006’s utterly fantastic “The Host (Gwoemul).” Joon-Ho’s 2006 science fiction epic is a masterpiece of monster cinema that’s intelligent, innovative, and reaches down to the basic core of family unity to propel its story beyond science fiction conventions.
Within the first fifteen minutes of “The Host (Gwoemul)” director Joon-Ho manages to build up enough tension and characterization to charge at us head on with the central plot. Based on true events, one day an American scientist orders his assistant to empty the remaining jars of Chloroform into his sink. His assistant, in his own feeble way attempts to protest, but immediately submits and dumps almost a hundred jars into the Han River. Years later, the environment and the locals pay dearly when the aftermath of pollution results in a rampaging monster.
The Korean “The Host (Gwoemul)” is not just a monster movie but it’s a movie about family, it’s a movie about overcoming incredible odds, and it’s a movie about the lengths we’ll go to to save our loved ones. Bong Joon Ho stages a fantastic yet horrifying attack of the sea monster at the Han River. The attack is the centrepiece of the film that sets all of the events in full motion, prompting Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) to dig deep and conjure the courage to save the remnants of his disjointed tribe. While Bong Joon Ho stages an amazing action sequence with the rampaging kaiju and the bystanders’ heroic efforts to stop, Joon-Ho sideswipes the audience by painting the aftermath of the attack as a true tragedy.
Yes, “The Host” is a fantastic monster movie, but it’s also about how much the monster’s violence affected the lower class, many of whom are chased off their homes by the government. In a gut wrenching scene, hundreds grieve their loved ones eaten by the monster, and the victims stand at an altar filled with pictures of the victims as the mourners cry hysterically. The Park family are grieving the death of their youngest Hyun-Seo who is taken by the creature and dragged away into the water during the mad scramble to flee the beast. To further twist the conventions of the plot, the beast has now infected its victims with a mysterious virus that has spread along their skin. Soon enough, they realize that the beast is only part of the horrors coming to them once the government takes control.
Infected with–what the local government calls a virus–the Park family decides to breaks free from the hospital to save Hyun-seo who is trapped in a sewer. Joon-Ho not only explores the ravages of the monster, but the chain reaction this massive attack causes on the government, the community, and this disconnected family who decide to band together to save one of their own. The monster wreaks havoc much like an environmental mutation would, hiding out in massive sewers, hunting for victims, and even regurgitates its victims bones in its lair as it unwittingly holds a pair of its intended prey hostage.
Our protagonist Gang-du is a somewhat mentally incapable man, sister Nam-Joo an Olympic archer, and feeble Hee-dong. With very strong performances from the entire cast, and rich character focus, Joon-Ho plays their often dysfunctional relationships and dynamics beautifully and with startling emotion, leaving them wholly outmatched against the cunning, but nonetheless powered by their relentless drive to save the youngest of the family. Joon-Ho’s tale of environmental chaos, government induced hysteria, and a monster that is only instrumental in the bigger picture of anarchy, and the collapse of a civilization under man is still very timely and gives way to a movie that’s so much more complex than a simple kaiju on a rampage.
But apocalypse be damned, they’ll confront military, scientists, mobs of head hunters, and an unstoppable beast to get their family back, and that’s enough for them. “The Host (Gwoemul)” has just about everything for everyone, even if you aren’t the biggest fan of international cinema. Bong Joon Ho presents us with one of the most dynamic stories I’ve ever seen. In the end, “The Host (Gwoemul)” is not a monster movie. It’s about a monster that comes between a family.