Sci-fi and horror comedies tend to lean more towards spoofs, much like Warner Bros.' 8 Legged Freaks, making it pretty tough to take the characters seriously, or care when a loved one is killed by the monster; more often then not, characters you though were dead pop up all healthy in the final reel, sporting a weapon and saving the day just as the monster or creatures are seconds away from smothering mankind into their maws and digestive tracks.
Unlike recent Hollywood films that tend to lean towards the silly/gross, or viciously brutal/darkly funny, The Host / Gwoemul offers a bit of everything, yet the filmmakers never allow the film to tumble into outright ridiculousness nor follow the conventional plot points.
One potent ingredient is the creature's origin, itself part of an anti-American undercurrent that runs through the film. Toxins may have already existed in the environment from the Korean War, but the grotesque creature – a kind of mutant tadpole that stores its prey until mealtime – is the direct result of a lazy American commander (played in a brief scene by Scott Wilson) who orders a Korean assistant to pour bottles of toxin down the drain.
As Godzilla arose from radioactive fallout, the Host comes ups from the river depths, swinging off the main bridge, and picking of reams off reams of humans that flank the Han River . Director/co-writer Joon-ho Bong exploited the locale's labyrinthine sewer and storm drain network much in the way Gordon Douglas milked Los Angeles ' urban root system in the classic giant spider film Them! In both films, the plot ultimately centers on saving kids from the monster, whose lair is somewhere in tunnels that go on for miles.
Unlike the creatures in Them!, the Host is hunted down by the family it assaulted during its inaugural riverside assault, and none of the scientists have any moral or ethical fortitude. Eggheads lie to the populace and brutally traumatize the father, while the police are automatons who will look the other way if given a bribe. Even the government is in cahoots with the Americans who initially arrive to assist, but have their own agenda.
Equally unique are the lead characters who aren't wholly bright, but whose behaviour – sometimes bordering on Three Stooges kicking and grappling – establishes the film's absurdist humour. Director Bong keeps them compelling because the quest to save the daughter remains genuine, and the final confrontation takes some unexpected turns.
Effective too are the stunning visuals, which overall mimic the serene, ordered geometry of the bridge and its building-flanked riverbank. Hyung-ku Kim's cinematography emphasizes clean lines and smooth round shapes; in darkness or shaded lighting the bridge and tunnels are foreboding, while brightly lit shots establish a sense of calm that nicely adds to the shock when the slimy creature swerves and gallops towards its victim.
Byung-woo Lee's orchestral score underscores every scene with total emotional honesty. Rich strings or thumping percussion tracks provide the usual sympathetic tones and action enhancements, and Lee's lovely theme often sustains our sympathy for the lead characters when their behaviour gets a bit too loony (though conversely, it also pushes moments of pathos into hysterical bathos).
Though slated for a Region 1 release in July 2007 by Magnolia, The Host / Gwoemul is available on several Korean DVD editions, including a 2-disc and 4-disc special edition with loads of extras (but English subtitles for the film only).
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan