Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Host

A few years back, in one of his earliest columns for Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King compared horror fans to drug addicts; forever chasing that next high, and finding it harder and harder to accomplish each time. This is a notion that I agree wholeheartedly with, and find it so perfectly phrased. Indeed, for me this has held distressingly true. I don't believe this means that the quality of horror movies has gone down; the ratio of good movies to crap movies seems to remain fairly stable, it's only what's popular that skews the results. It may be more fair to say that I've become just the teensiest bit jaded, and maybe I expect more, or different things from horror these days. I don't for one minute think I'm alone in this. The desire for new and more extreme thrills speaks to the current trend towards torture porn, and explains the still ongoing(although not AS popular) fad for Asian horror films.

It may be waning these days, but Asian cinema turned out to be a great boon for the long-suffering horror fan. Not all of the films were classics, but they were so different from what we were familiar with, they were filtered through such a radically different set of sensibilities and cultural mores that it was like a breath of fresh air. Certainly some of the hallmarks have become a bit tired(how many types of haunted technology can there be?), but there are still some great movies being made overseas. Lately my interests have been veering a little bit away from China & Japan, and I've been watching more Korean films. I won't make any sweeping generalities, but it should be noted that every Korean film I've seen so far suffers from the same flaws; a willingness to go against the film's own internal logic for at least one inexplicable, infuriating moment, and a tendency towards overwrought melodrama. Still, I do find myself enjoying the film, even if in the end I find it a lackluster affair. Because, in exchange for those momentary lapses in logic, we get sweeping camera movements and a generous helping of gorgeous classical music in the score. They(and keep in mind I am only speaking of the dozen or so films I've seen, not the entire Korean cinematic output) exude a sense of gothic class and impending dread that has been lost from most American horror movies with the tendency towards flashy, music video editing. So I usually just go with the flow and allow the films to sucker me in until the end comes and I find myself a little let down.

Certainly keeping at least one foot in the flawed territory mentioned above, Gwoemul(The Host) still managed to stir those long dormant feelings, and give me that good old horror rush that I've been missing. And actually, the flaws are relatively minor. The focus here is more on adventure and political satire than scares, but it has a big giant monster, so it's still a horror movie.

In the opening scene an American doctor orders his Korean subordinate to dump gallons upon gallons of formaldehyde into a drain that feeds into the Han river(based on a true event, although with an outcome nothing like this film). What follows is a small montage that led me to believe the movie would be a slow buildup to the eventual reveal of the monster which was, of course, mutated by the formaldehyde. Yes I know formaldehyde wouldn't cause a fish to mutate into a gigantic bloodthirsty monstrosity, and it is a tad cheesy, but it fits with the old-school, mad scientist, monster mash vibe through the film.

Of course, we're so used to seeing the monster hidden in shadows, both as a stylistic attempt to keep it frightening, and as a pretty easy way to keep the special effect's flaws from being too noticeable. So it was quite a shock to not only see the movie kick off with a bang, but that this scene would also be in bright daylight, with plenty of static camera shots to show off the big nasty monster rampaging through crowds of people enjoying a nice summer day at the riverbank. Normally I'm against CGI, and it almost always takes me out of the movie because it's so obvious, but in this movie I wont even give it a second thought. The CGI may not quite be Industrial Light and Magic, but it's still impressive, and the scenes with the beast are so well staged and shot that it would be childish to say 'yes, but the effects are cheesy'. Indeed, this scene was such a surprise, and so well done, that even on the third viewing I experienced the same thrill, like the moment just before the big dip in a roller coaster.

With such a crowd-pleaser of a start, it's not a surprise that most people tune out and find the rest of the film boring. It is two hours long, and the monster is absent from a great deal of it, but there's still a pretty solid story there, with some action and humor thrown in just as it starts to get too slow. The film focuses on the quest of one family to find their daughter(niece, granddaughter) who was taken by the monster and who they still believe to be alive. Standing in their way, aside from the aforementioned monster, is the Korean government, and eventually the US government, which intrudes upon matters and begins enforcing their own brand of marshal law.

Of course the film becomes a not-so-subtle critique of America's style of foreign policy; IE, stepping into the middle of a situation it doesn't fully understand and taking over completely.
I'll admit the movie drags a bit during these parts, and by the time the end comes it seems about 20 minutes too late, but it's these segments of the film that I seem to enjoy more each time I watch it. There's more than one political statement being made, with references to the Vietnam war, Agent Orange, SARS, bird flu, and more. Still, I think there might be one too many subplots(the homeless children in the sewer system slowed things down at a point where it didn't need to be slowed down any further), but it's never quite dull. And I do enjoy how each member of the family- slacker dad, kindly grandfather, disappointed revolutionary uncle, and Olympic level archer(think that'll be an important plot point?) aunt- all get their own section of the movie. As the movie goes on various members of the cast take on the hero role, in the end, of course, coming together to each take down the beast.

So all in all I really enjoyed this one, which was probably obvious as soon as I mentioned watching it three times, although I'd stop short of calling it a perfect film. On top of the lagging in the film at times, there's a twist at the end that turns the film into a sort of shaggy dog story(actually, two of them, but one of them I really enjoyed), and feels like a betrayal of the audience's confidence. Also, one of those pesky scenes with a total disregard for the films own logic in a brief shot towards the end that implies the beast is actually made up of a bunch of fish somehow melded together. I use selective continuity and block that one shot out, which is easy to do since it's only 2 seconds long.

No comments: