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Thursday, November 1, 2007

REEL REVIEW: The Host (2007) ***1/2

The Host (2007) Korean poster)

R (for creature violence and language)
119 min.
written by: Bong Joon-Ho, Ha Jun-weon & Baek Cheol-hyeon
produced by: Choi Yong-bae
directed by: Bong Joon-Ho

I remember hearing about this movie before it's U.S. release earlier this year in March. All I knew is that it was some kinda monster movie from Asia. I immediately assumed it was another desperate hope for American cinema to re-release a little-seen horror classic from overseas and capitalize on the success of films like "The Ring" or "The Grudge". I had the idea that this was gonna be a silly Japanese monster B-movie. Once I started reading and hearing positive reviews about the film, I came to see my American naivete. The film is not Japanese at all, it takes place in Korea and the monster in the film wasn't toppling over skyscrapers like child's play. Instead, it's a man-made, mutated fish creature the size of a truck that emerges out of the Han River, terrorizing anyone in it's path.

The DVD cover is mistaken as it advertises, "On a par with Jaws", a quote that shows American marketing has no clue how to spin the movie. How can anyone compare it to a movie where the terrorizing great white shark is scarcely shown? That's not what's happening here, this movie is unique in that it shows the slimy, grotesque, somewhat comical-looking aquatic creature from the start. Right away we see this thing clumsily stampeding it's way through civilians along the river. No, this is far from "Jaws" and unlike any monster I've seen before. It may seem clumsy with it's whipping tail bopping up and down but it has a speed and agility one would never imagine.

Indeed, this is a rare monster movie in that it lets you see the creature and then hides it away, letting the humans carry the story. It follows the Park family, forced together against both the monster and the government, to find their youngest member, Hyun-seo (
Ah-sung Ko), who was taken by the creature. Her dim-witted father Gang-du (Kang-ho Song) blames himself for her capture. He helps run the riverside snack-bar with his father, Hee-bong (Hie-bong Byeon), where the incident occured. His sister Nam-joo (Du-na Bae) is a national medalist archer who lacks confidence while his alcoholic brother, Nam-il (Hae-il Park) hasn't made much of himself since graduating from college. In their pursuit to find Gang-du's daughter, they run into various obstacles, as seemingly everyone they encounter does their best to prevent them from saving her.


Just what is the deal with this creature? Well, I'm not really giving anything away by telling you that the film starts out with an American military pathologist (Scott Wilson) commanding a Korean assistant to dispose of over 100 formaldehyde bottles down the drain. Hmmmm, guess where that flows into? So, this monstrosity is born of U.S. pollution in Korea, boy, we sure ruin everything. Now that's about as unsubtle a statement as could be made about the world's take on of the United States, as it puts a foreign country in peril through no fault of its own, and when it can't solve the problem, it needs America to step in, take over and clean things up.

Thankfully, the majority of the film really doesn't obsess over politics, it prefers the dysfunctional Park family over any type of statement. The story focuses on how fake blonde Gang-Du, his siblings and their father as they battle each other and this creature. At times these characters act as naturally frenzied as anyone would in a situation where a city is quarantined (due to the government's fear that this creature is "hosting' some plague) yet they also act just plain silly. I dunno if that's just their character or that the film is going for some comedy to add levity to a dark and tense setting. It may seem like the focus may be a lil off at times, bouncing between Hyun-Seo's struggle for survival in the monster's lair and her family's efforts to save her, but it works and it's still an exciting and involving thriller.

I didn't really find the moments of comedy upstaging the more serious or eerie scenes at all. In fact, the humor and fear elements combined really add a believable tone. It seems to me pretty common to try an add humor to a really horrible and uncertain situation. With it's beautifully kinetic and artistic cinematography, I can see this becoming quite a cult film eventually, if it hasn't already. The final climatic battle between the family and the beast alone is pretty compelling and would be enough to warrant a spot in the film history books. But, that opening scene when we first see the creature is one of the most original, well-filmed monster attacks in recent history.

At first, the creature may look kind of silly and dorky, like a cross between a catfish and a puppy dog, any thoughts of it being "cute" will quickly be abolished once it bares its teeth and starts attacking. It really is an amazing piece of CGI, the creature has as much real weight and depth as any of the creatures in Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings." It might be surprising how such an odd-looking creature can be realized in such a realistic and life-like way but that makes it far more threatening than any stop motion or man-in-suit monster could ever be. That's what makes the terror so effective, especially in the scenes where Hyun-seo is trying to escape from the creature's lair in the sewers.

The sound design and score is noteworthy here as well as it complements the story successfully.
Byeong Woo-Lee's impeccable score adds just enough to bolster the tension in the movie. The movie looks as good or better than most Hollywood blockbusters, it wisely avoids most of the predictable clich├ęs and plot twists that often ruin the best of them. Bong's monster movie is set in the real world where attacking giant monsters has its repercussions. I quickly realized it's not wise to get too attached to anyone here. While some of those decisions might not be so popular, they create a more believable story, even if it's just because the young girl is too busy trying to keep from being eaten by the monster to name it and treat it like a pet (standard tradition in many Japanese monster movies). Its these elements that should quickly dispel any easy comparisons, as "The Host" sets the really raises the level for any future movies in the genre.

It should be noted that the film is in Korean with English subtitles for all you who convulse at the idea of sitting thru a movie you have to read. As long as the movie is good, that kinda thing has no effect on me.

The film is filled with such a tremendous amount of heart and humor that it rises above its genre roots to be a truly unforgettable moviegoing experience. I found myself enamored by the film's characters and especially intrigued by its titular monster. Somehow it falls a bit short of a four star rating bu tI still highly recommend it. It takes the typical monster from below genre and really adds some unique layers, more than many films of any genre can say. This DVD looks and sounds great, which is a key for this film, while the two-disc set has every extra you could ask for the one disc rental that I watched was thoroughly suitable. It helps to be a fan of these kind of movies but here's a film that really can be seen by anyone, if anything it definetly makes you think twice about what you pour down a drain as well as how close you are to a river.



Special Features:

The copy I rented was the single-disc version of the film as the double-disc wasn't available for rental. The single disc did okay as far as features go. I didn't really have time for all of them but I couldn't really remember if it went into detail as to how the creature was made. The 2-disc version though has a slew of extra goodies.....

Disc One, starts out with an audio commentary by director Bong Joon-Ho, who is joined by film critic Tony Rayns, who covers Asian films extensively. Rayns acts as moderator for Joon-Ho, who thankfully delivers the commentary in English. Considering the complexity of the monster and the unique nature of the film, it only makes sense that Joon-Ho spends a good deal of time discussing the how and why of the special effects, along with info on the inspiration for both the film and the creature, and plenty of details about the production. Joon-Ho does an excellent job on the track, though Rayns' help is certainly part of why the track moves along so well.

The commentary is supplemented by Joon-Ho's "Reflections," of the director apologizing on-screen to actors and people he may have "wronged" in making the film. To say this is a unique extra is putting it lightly.

Also included on the first DVD are deleted scenes, (I think I saw these) which flesh out the affect of the monster's attack, but were appropriately removed from the final film. The best is the insight into how Joon-Ho planned to sculpt his story, with extra bits and pieces, instead of many full scenes or alternate takes. The cut monster scenes will likely be the most interesting to fans of the film though. They are joined by over four minutes of complete news clips, seen in the background (and occasionally foreground) of the film.

Disc Two kicks off with an eight-part documentary on the making of the film, which runs approximately an hour, and covers the film's storyboards, direction, production, set design, special effects and sound. If there's something you wanted to know about the movie, and it wasn't covered in Joon-Ho's commentary, it's probably in here, as the piece focuses in on most aspects of the production, with plenty of looks behind the curtain, at how everything came together. Or...

You can find it in "The Creature," another multi-part featurette, with seven parts totaling over 85 minutes, looking solely at the creation of the monster. Considering how much a part of the film's hype was the creature, it makes sense that the disc spends a lot of time covering it, and this featurette nails it, with tons of behind-the-scene footage and interviews, including a lot of material from the well-known Weta Workshop.

About 20 minutes of coverage of the crew is broken down into three categories: the staff, the production team and the visual effect supervisor. It's pretty obvious at this point that no stone is left unturned on this DVD, with the staff section being cute, as it's styled after a scene in the film. Another seven-part epic, looks at the cast, including the stars and extras, with casting videos, on-set footage and interviews with the cast presenting a full picture of the acting portion of the equation.

We're not done yet, as a gag reel, which features silly animation renderings and the cast goofing around, and a sentimental five-minute look back, titled "Saying Goodbye," are joined by Korean trailers for the film, wrapping up the extras.

The Skinny:

  • The event described in the beginning of Gwoemul is based on an actual event. In February 2000 at a US military facility located in the center of Seoul, a US military civilian employee named Mr. McFarland was ordered to dispose of formaldehyde by dumping it into the sewer system that led to the Han River despite the objection of a South Korean subordinate. The South Korean government attempted to prosecute Mr. McFarland in a South Korean court but the US military refused to hand over the custody of Mr. McFarland to the South Korean legal system. Later, a South Korean judge convicted Mr. McFarland in absentia. The Public was enraged at the South Korean government's inability to enforce its law on its own soil. In 2005, nearly five years after the original incident, Mr. McFarland was finally found guilty in a South Korean court in his presence. He never served the actual prison sentence, however. No sighting of a mutant creature has been reported in Han River -- yet.
  • The scene where Nam-il kicks Gang-du at the funeral ceremony was improvised.
  • The crew of "The Host" used metal barrels to make the splash effects whenever the monster would dive into the water.
  • Computer Graphics for the creature were done by Orphanage Inc.
  • The movie had the highest record for people who watched in South Korea, which had a population of 13,019,740. It means over 20% of the whole South Korean population watched the movie. Of course, there are people who watched it several times.
  • Director Joon-ho Bong and the designer of the creature nicknamed it Steve Buscemi, based on the actor's screen persona and the way he acted in the movie Fargo (1996).
    The director designed all the creature's movements. He compared it to directing an actor.
  • Joon-ho Bong was impressed with Scott Wilson after having seen him in, among other films, Monster (2003). He approached the actor by sending him a copy of the script and a DVD of his previous film, Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok (2003)). The actor later agreed to be in the film.
  • In the news montage that depicted public hysteria, the man following the shot of the Center for Disease Control is former Canadian deputy prime minister John Manley.
  • The film was shot on three bridges in South Korea: Dong-ho Bridge, Han-gang Bridge & Wonhyo Bridge.
  • While the budget was among the largest ever in a South Korean production, by international standards it was more modest. The director had to work around the budget-imposed restrictions, especially when it came to special effects. The creature itself was designed by Chin Wei-chen, the modeling was done by New Zealand-based Weta Workshop and the animatronics were by John Cox's creature Workshop. The CGI for the film was done by The Orphanage, which also did the CGI of "The Day After Tomorrow."
  • The monster was designed with some specific parameters in mind. The director's wishes were for it to look like an actual mutated fish-like creature, rather than have a more fantastical design. The monster also needed to be able to run and perform certain acrobatic movements during the film.
  • Some of the filming took place in the real sewers near the Han River, rather than on a set. The stars and crew were told they were being inoculated against tetanus by the medical officer, though the injections also included inoculation against blood-sucking tapeworms that inhabit the sewers. During filming, the crew had to deal with the effects of changes in weather and ambient temperature. This including the sewage water freezing in cold temperatures, so that it had to be broken up and melted; and during hot and windy periods, the water evaporated and the silt turned to dust, which blew around in the breeze and into the faces of the crew.
  • Because of its themes that can be seen as critical of the United States, the film was actually lauded by North Korean authorities, a rarity for a South Korean blockbuster film.
  • The Host premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 21, 2006 and was released nationally in South Korea on July 27, 2006. Having been heavily hyped and featuring one of the most popular leading actors in the country, Song Kang-ho, the film was released on a record number of screens and made the South Korean record books with its box office performance during its opening weekend. Its American release was March 9, 2007.
  • U.S. DVD was released on July 24, 2007 in both single disc and a two disc collector's edition in DVD, HD-DVD and Blu-Ray formats.
  • On June 19th, it was announced that a sequel was in progress for a 2008 release, with a different director. It is planned to have a budget of about 10.7 million.

Interview with director Bong Joon-Ho

The Host (2007) American poster

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