2006Director: Bong Joon-ho
Cast: Byeon Hee-bong, Song Kang-ho
ccording to widely recognized consensus, American filmmaking ended in 1975 with the release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. The American box office (so the theory runs) had prospered during its second golden age of the 1970s, dominated by challenging, complex films like Polanski’s Chinatown, Coppola’s first two Godfather films and Altman’s Nashville. Jaws, normally identified as the first “event film,” provided audiences with a new form of cinema. This new breed of effects-driven summer fodder (so the story goes) “ate Hollywood.”
In the finest tradition of sweeping cultural theory, these ideas obviously contain little complexity, much generalizing, and more than a sprinkling of truth. American film culture did indeed change after Jaws, and mostly for the worse. It is right to mourn the passing of a historical period when the greater American public possessed an appetite for challenging, difficult cinema. A look at the top ten grossing films of 1973 compared with last year’s box office big hitters is indeed a depressing read. The reality, however, is far more complex.
For a start, the suggestion that the Americans were in some way the creators of the event “monster movie” is absurd. Jaws is often (and correctly) seen as the first American film to invest heavily in television marketing, which of course proved immeasurably useful in creating the zeitgeist “stuffed if I’ll go for a swim after seeing that” hysteria the film thrived upon.
The Asian film industry, led by the Japanese and Korean industries, had invested in television marketing for years, not the least of which involved the Godjira movies. The doomsdayers and theorists seem to have forgotten a fine culture of popular “event” cinema in East Asia (usually involving monsters) long before Spielberg began playing with toy helicopters in his trailer. These Asian-produced small budget monster movies informed and fed a generation of American filmmakers whose work, it now appears, has informed a new generation of Japanese and Korean filmmakers. This history may sound like meaningless obfuscation, but the complex process of cultural cross-pollination and re-pollination informs every second of Bong Jon-Ho’s The Host.
The Host is very much part of a rich tradition of East Asian monster movies: far more politically motivated than its American counterparts while liberally borrowing their lofty production values. It’s also unusually offbeat, often leading the audience down a well-worn genre path before politely running in the opposite direction. This is a monster movie that contains none of the insouciance we usually expect in the genre, preferring instead to show us the agony and devastating grief of family members mourning their dead after the monster has attacked. You’d expect to come across this emotional power in the climactic scenes of a Dogme film. All of The Host’s better sequences share this bizarre mixture of oddness and intensity and, to Jon-Ho’s credit, there are quite a few of them.
This film, however (unusual to say the least in a creature feature) is less about giant killer slugs and more about family dynamics. As such, it relies heavily on its performances. For the most part they’re very good, although lead man Song Kang-ho’s dysfunctional narcolepsy seems a little over baked at times. Perhaps it’s the strain of collating these disparate elements for an extended period that wears the film down in its final reel. If anything, The Host proves that domestic naturalism and monster movies can only live in harmony for ninety minutes. As intense and well-filmed as they are, the last thirty minutes seem to cry out for a few precious seconds of the insouciance we normally associate with the genre.
I do not intend to be too hard on Joon-ho. True, his film is never genuinely scary, and let’s face it, the beast is a little on the underwhelming side, but this is still a textured, complex film, one that works equally well as political allegory, kitchen sink drama, and genre free-for-all.
The Host is currently playing in limited release in the UK and will open in limited release in the United States on March 9th.
By: Jim Flanagan
Published on: 2007-02-13