Sunday, September 14, 2008

괴물 Gwoemul - The Host

What a lot of horror movies there are. Was it always thus? Perhaps this is a topic for another review - Saw or Hostel, maybe. Let's not attack the central question of horror here, nor why there it so much of it now. We'll skip the 'why' of the genre, in favour of the 'how'. Let me just say, I view horror as a shit genre. But in amongst the shit, one occasionally comes across pearls. Apart from being pretty in and of themselves, such pearls can be instructive.

In this regard, The Host is a salutary lesson. If you do happen to like movies that scare the pants off you, The Host succeeds admirably. But if that's all it had, I wouldn't give you tuppence for it. Scaring people is the easiest and most witless thing in the world. It's everything besides this instilling of fear that sets The Host apart. Sure enough, all the reviews of The Host concentrated on the scariness of it. God forbid anyone should dwell on the context in which it was surrounded. In the West context doesn't exist.

Lessons aside, The Host is a cracker. It's gorgeously shot, edited, and has an inspired, um, 'whimsical' soundtrack that vaguely reminds me perhaps of Nino Rota of Fellini fame. It's simultaneously exciting, brave, sad, and nutty. The cast is spectacular, equally up to the task of the film's comedy and tragedy, both of which are intense. I don't know that there's a single Hollywood horror flick that has the emotional punch that this film does. Actually, let's scratch the word 'horror' there - this film has greater emotional depth than most Hollywood flicks, period. And sure enough, hats off to the director, Bong Joon-Ho. He's really something.

BTW - The 'Host' is a crummy title. It refers to a single reference in the film related to a red-herring subplot. I'm not spoiling anything if I say there is no host. Gwoemul (pronounced 'gway-mul') translates literally as 'monster' which in Korea would have been both catchy and succinct. I expect that the American distributors chose not to use this name because other films with this title exist already. I can imagine the meeting that would have discussed finding an English name - a roomful of suits displaying their creative genius. How eye-glazingly tedious it would have been. Me, I think a far better title would have been 'Saving Hyun-Seo'. My imagined suits would have declared this 'not scary enough and too foreign', I expect. What stupid people suits are.

The Victims

Ordinarily, in Hollywood horror, the victims are carefully chosen. Within each choice are subtle messages to shape our understandings. Priests should always die of course, along with those who are demonstrable in their faith. As should drug takers, those of a lascivious bent, those who are too straight-laced, and sure enough, anyone who asks questions or otherwise suggests some path other than killing and slaughter. God spare the latter, because Hollywood's killers never will. Mind you, I just throw these out loosely. I am no note-taking expert on horror. But others are, and documentaries (all self-serving, natch) exist that analyse what it all means. The key point here with The Host is that there are no such messages. The creature is not an avenging spirit. It has no agenda. It is nothing more than a dispassionate predator of nature. Run fast and zig-zag and perhaps you won't be eaten.

To be honest there is only one victim who counts, and that is the aforementioned Hyun-Seo, the youngest member of the family that is the heart and soul of this film. Arguably the monster in this film is irrelevant. The script could have been rewritten with the girl having been: abducted by gangsters; taken by the government; or just plain lost, and the heartbreak story of the family would have differed barely at all. It is the intensity of the family's journey from grief, to hope, to mad desperation, and Pyrrhic sideways victory that makes this such a substantial movie.

The Monster

Certainly there have been many cinema monsters that were a commentary on scientific and/or military hubris. A recent example being the idiotic Deep Blue Sea. And so it is here, but with a very specific geo-political edge. South Korea, like Japan, is an occupied country. My sole experience of Korea (ha! pun!) is the three hours transit I spent in Seoul Airport on the way to Tokyo one time. I was astounded (not really) to see the staggering numbers of US servicemen there. And in Japan I heard many stories of people doing visa runs to Korea who were treated like shit there because it was assumed that they were soldiers in civvies. They weren't of course, but the Koreans are past caring. Keep in mind that during the Korean war the US military was every bit as happy to see South Koreans die as North Koreans. The more dead gooks, the better. No surprise then that the occupiers are not loved.

Beyond this initial history, Korea, like Japan, has had many many high profile crimes committed by US servicemen, with the military perpetually refusing to surrender them to Korean justice. The Koreans groove on this in precisely the same way Americans would if they were occupied and gooks were raping the white women and getting away with it. Which is to say, they fucking hate it. Koreans were equally unimpressed when the US military dumped Formaldehyde and assorted industrial toxins in the Han River in 2000. Here, this front-page news event is re-imagined with a toothy aquatic mutant as the result.

The director has declared that The Host is more than an anti-American film, and he's right of course. Still, what sets this film apart in terms of indictment is its vicious and undissipated nature. Western versions invariably couch their 'indictments' in uselessly vague terms, or otherwise make excuses that render whatever point they were trying to make worthless. Take The Deep Blue Sea. Please! Its super sharks (which madly seem to possess a post-doctoral understanding of architectural engineering) were the results of well-meaning Big Pharma scientists trying to make the world a better place. Ha ha ha, get fucked!

The Environment

I'm referring here to the cinematic environment. Think hard - how many horror films have you seen that were 'confined', which is to say, they ensured the isolation of the protagonists in some remote location? In film after film, there's no escape because everyone's stuck: on a boat; in a spaceship; in a house; on a planet; in a small town; in a shopping mall; on and on, ad infinitum. It's a standard cinematic horror convention.

There's several reasons for this. Firstly it keeps down the costs because less sets are needed. Secondly it stops people escaping. If they could escape, there'd be no movie. Remember, in horror movies we don't actually give a shit about the survivors. They only occupy the last five minutes of the flick (sometimes less). It's the killing that counts - it doesn't take up 95% of the movie for nothing. Thirdly the confined environment allows the director to get away with cardboard cut-out characters. It's not easy making real, flesh and blood people that an audience might actually care about. Nor does it serve the purpose of horror. We the audience are actually meant to enjoy the killing, which is the point of the whole exercise. We are not meant to mourn the victims, so much as be impressed by the new and graphic means by which they were killed. 'Wow, that was pretty cool where the spike went through his arse and came out his mouth!'

Believe it or not, this idea of the cast of cardboard cut-outs is invariably held up as some kind of achievement. "Well, the interesting thing about this script is how it takes a social dynamic of six complete strangers who are thrown together and examines how they might each behave when the 'insert-creature-here' is trying to kill them." Hmm... what an interesting philosophical question... Will they scream? Or will they say, 'Fuck you!' and die bravely? Or will they just gurgle and have blood come out their mouth? It's what passes for an intellectual discussion amongst fans of horror.

Significantly, The Host completely blows this convention. The film's action takes place in a city full of people. At the monster's first rampaging appearance a cast of thousands flee. There are no 'confines' as such apart from the high walls in which Hyun-Seo is trapped. She thus becomes the centre of gravity drawing in the hitherto centrifugal family. The director chooses not only to have an expansive film environment, but astoundingly turns the tables and has the environment, in this case the government response to the monster, become the greatest threat to the family. To a certain extent, the monster is the least of the family's problems. Far more of the film's time is devoted to the family battling the government than the monster itself.

The Government

What kind of crazy government is this? Says I - a realistic one! Not one single representative of the government does anything of any use at any time. The entire government monster-inspired programme is an idiotic, mad charade. The government is not only uninterested in capturing or killing the monster, it is also perfectly unconcerned about what the survivors have to say about its behaviour. All of the government's energies are devoted to the 'virus'. Virus? What virus? Exactly - there isn't one.

Is this an indictment of the US government and their bullshit War On Terror? Not quite. The government here did not cynically create this monster to implement a pre-planned fascist roll-out like the US is doing. The Koreans here merely abjectly went along with the US government's opportunistic pseudo-science diktat. Subsequently this film could more correctly be described as a criticism of all those US allies who've pathetically piled in on the US's bullshit War On Bottles Of Shampoo, if you can dig it. The film's message to the citizens of democracies in thrall to the US is crystal clear - your government is bullshit, and their US inspired message is bullshit too. If you hold to your belief that your government is there to help you, you're deluded. Did you notice how many 'you' and 'yours' there were in that last sentence? Quite right too. It's YOUR government.

Now. Can anyone think of any US film with a message even half as damning as this? If this were a US film, the government (wicked rogue agents aside) would be depicted as a) helpful and concerned, b) the only people who will save you, and c) the enemy of wicked rogue agents, ha ha. Welcome to Hollywood, the government propaganda machine.

The Horror

Well, here's the irony. The horror is the least important aspect of this film. I declare the director a sneaky genius. He's taken the horror mantle and made a whole other movie. The monster of this film is the cousin of Hitchcock's McGuffin once removed. Believe it or not, this film is not so much a horror film as a family drama. Don't be dismayed by this description. Think Little Miss Sunshine with special effects.

I fell in love with this family. They were such losers. The only thing they had going for them was their unquenchable spirit. The joy of it! You've never seen a scene quite like the family's reunification at the funeral. It's utterly absurd and utterly real. It's a heartbreaker and a comedy masterpiece. Only the deftest of directorial hands could pull this off.

The Host is one of those films where the end leaves one broken-hearted at the thought of never seeing this family again. Sure enough the film's success (it was Korea's highest grossing film ever) means that there will be a sequel. But I'm not getting excited. In fact, I'll lay odds that the money men will take over and everything that's good about this film will be completely absent in the sequel. All it and the original will have in common is the monster. Typical. Unsurprisingly, the director has declared he's uninterested. Good on him. Bugger the sequel, just keep your eye on Bong Joon-Ho. He's a cracker.


Anonymous said...

I must say Mr. N, you pen the best film reviews this low-grade cinema buff has ever laid eyes on -- and you should know, I don't issue literary compliments lightly.

Context indeed... =)

Being a visually-oriented sort by nature, and a hyper-critical SOB when necessary (Virgo?), I have always enjoyed dissecting films while watching them -- the DVD era certainly makes this hobby easier than ever.

I so enjoy such deconstruction that I'll watch films I would normally otherwise avoid, just to hunt down the socio-cultural programming in its various forms; keywords and phrases, idealized images, repetition, proximal placement and physical juxtaposition (as relates to ritual, about which I am only just starting to learn serious detail), ad infinitum.

Disney films in particular are a regular cluster-bombed minefield of neuro-linguistic song and dance. Always have been apparently. Thankfully, our local library has a fair DVD selection, as I will not go as far as paying useful cash for such occasional educational exercises.

Still, it is useful to know and be versant in the language and meta-language of manipulation, in defense if nothing else. My old media teacher back in high-school, subversive b***ard that he was, started all this. And I think he knew what he was doing. Probably read Derrida in the first printing.

And then, after going so far as to sacrifice a piece of ones soul by way of understanding the pure evil at play within Dutroux, SRA and the bloody machinery of the global Pedophocracy, one can never look at Mickey's "Mouseketeers" the same way ever again.

As such, it is the similarity of your own style of "review" to my own meme-breaking methods that makes it such a pleasure to take in these observations, almost no matter the film in question. I may not always leave a comment, but know that I will read each and every one from start to finish.

Rather like Mr. McGowan... =)

nobody said...

Ah Miraculix,

That was easily the best comment I've ever had here. One sometimes wonders if one isn't going mad what with no one 'getting it', if you can dig it.

And you did media studies in high school too? That was probably my favourite class after English. My teacher was not subversive but at least he taught us to think about what we were looking at. He's also (unwittingly) responsible for me going to Japan. I'll never forget the first time I saw The Seven Samurai. I was fifteen. It did my head in. Sure enough later when I was in Japan and the Japanese would ask why I came to Japan I'd always tell them because of The Seven Samurai and we'd all laugh. We'd all get the joke. I'd tell them that I knew that that Japan no longer existed. But I'd also tell them that it DID exist.

Aargh, I'm rambling now. But perhaps there's a point. That being that films change people's lives. Mine was changed from one film. Perhaps the response to 'It's only a movie', is, 'Sure, and a butterfly is only an insect, but it can make a thunderstorm.'

Ayah. Waxing idiotic rhapsodic again. Anyway good to hear from you. Off to check the haiku blog.