Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bong at BAM: The Host

Unlike Japan, Korea is not used to being terrorized by large rampaging monsters. While this scaly mutant might not be Godzilla or Mothra sized, it is quick as a cat and reportedly carries a deadly virus, so it definitely a big time threat to Korean homeland security. Yet for one family, fighting the creature gets desperately personal in Bong Joon-ho’s international breakout hit The Host (trailer here), which screens next week during Monsters and Murderers, BAM Cinematek’s Bong retrospective.

It had already been a disappointing day at Park Gang-du’s family snack shack, even before an amphibious monster jumps out of the Han River. They had watched on television as his sister Nam-joo lost her archery competition because she did not release her final shot in time (a little foreshadowing maybe?). It gets far worse when Park’s daughter Hyun-seo is presumed dead in the aftermath of the creature’s first rampage. However, she has actually been more-or-less safely regurgitated back at the monster’s hidden lair and is able to make a brief cell call to her grieving father.

Since the clueless authorities are completely disinterested in the Parks’ possible lead on the monster’s location, they set off to rescue Hyun-seo themselves. To do so, they will have to sneak through various quarantines, because the monster is also the host for a lethally contagious virus, except not really. It turns out that is just one of many deceptions perpetrated by the U.S. military for mysteriously perverse reasons.

How did the monster come into being? Actually, it was all America’s fault, or more specifically the fault of an American military doctor, who had countless bottles of formaldehyde poured down the drain, simply because he is a creep. Indeed, such persistent anti-Americanism is a frequent distraction in The Host and one reason why the film is not nearly as much fun as it ought to be.

Bong is a filmmaker with a tragic sensibility, but it does not lend itself as readily to the monster movie genre, as compared to his dark crime dramas. Still, one of the cool things about The Host is that a major character could conceivably die at any time, so the stakes are always high. Indeed, Bong is not one to compulsively tie his films up with neat happy endings. While this leads to a compellingly ambiguous effect in his previous film, Memories of Murder, it is basically a downer here.

While the monster effects are in fact quite well produced, frankly that is the least important aspect of a good creature feature. Host might have been billed by critics as good clean monster movie fun, but it is actually quite dour and angst-ridden. Its unflattering take on Americans, particularly the military, is not exactly subtle either. In reality, should a giant mutant ever crawl out of the Han River, one would bet Bong would be decidedly relieved to see a company of Yanks show up to engage the beast. Host is the film that made Bong’s name in America though, so one would expect BAM to screen it during their retrospective. However, Bong’s latest, Mother, represents a definite return to form for the director. It is an excellent film that will be reviewed here in conjunction with its March 12th theatrical release. Mother has one special sneak peak screening at BAM on Friday (2/26) and The Host screens the following day, with Bong present for Q&A both evenings.