The Host (2006)

Directed by Joon Ho Bong

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The Host isn’t just a monster movie.  It’s a collection of horror and comedy as well as a personal drama between family members growing apart but who are suddenly pushed close together.

The main character, Park Gang-Doo (Kang-ho Song), is a struggling father who needs as much growing up to do as his daughter, Hyun-Seo (Ah-sung Ko).  Gang-Doo is presumably divorced, he works a mostly thankless job, and his daughter treats him more like an older brother than a father.  This all feels very familiar as most disaster/monster films seem to be centered around divorced, struggling fathers who have to win back their child’s trust as well as the affections of an ex-wife (2012The War of the Worlds, probably a few zombie movies).  In The Host, however, Gang-Doo’s screw ups are played more for comedy than tragedy.  His character is hard to take seriously, but by the end he commands our empathy much more traditional grizzly, handsome divorced fathers in movies.  That’s pretty much all because we witness the character growth within Gang-Doo.

He makes a mistake early on which leads to him losing Hyun-Seo to the monster, presumably to be eaten.  When he gets a call late at night from his daughter, Gang-Doo realizes she’s still alive, and he makes it his mission (along with two siblings and his father) to save her.

Where Gang-Doo slips up, his siblings are there to call him out.  No one treats him with any respect, whether or not he deserves it, and the government treats him as if he himself is a monster as they believe him to be infects by a virus transmitted through the monster’s blood.  Gang-Doo’s main opposition is the government which restrains him, and his family which struggles not to blame him.

What I love about this movie is how it celebrates moments that could easily be too cheesy.  Director Joon Ho Bong knows, I’m sure, that we have all seen monster movies before.  We know it’s meant to be sad if and when a main character dies, but we’ve come to expect it in this genre.  So when Hyun-Seo appears to have died (pretty early in the movie), Bong knows we won’t feel the same sadness as the characters, Hyun-Seo’s family, do.  So what does he do?  Well first it’s a moment in which we meet Gang-Doo’s siblings for the first time, and the family of four begin to completely fall apart in front of a photo of Hyun-Seo meant to be her memorial.  They cry and yell for what feels like 5 or so minutes of screen time (not an insignificant amount of time), even fighting each other as much as mourning Hyun-Seo.  As Gang-Doon’s brother tries to claw him away from himself, it begins to feel like they’re trying to out-mourn each other.  And then the photographer’s show up to take in the incident, and suddenly this film feels a lot more aware of itself than I expected in the first 15 minutes.

So this is where the tone is set.  We have already seen a monster movie moment, when the weird, chemically-created fish monster has wreaked havoc in and outside of the river, but this is all to be expected in this genre.  The mourning scene, played for tragedy and then, with enough tragedy, for comedy, tells you what this movie will be.

The best parts of this movie are some of these small moments that, in another version of the movie, could easily have been left on the cutting room floor.  We don’t need to see the family mourn with such excess, but it makes sense for where they’re at emotionally, and the scene starts to pivot in a way that commands our empathy and requires a more active viewing experience.  Later in the movie there will be other social commentary moments or just moments of quiet humor.

In one scene, after we’ve established that everyone is fearful of the spread of a new virus brought by the monster, a group of citizens stand close together at a bus stop, each wearing a mask to protect from illness.  A news report explains that the virus shows itself through cold-like symptoms, and then one of the people begins to cough, making others slowly inch away from him.  The sick man then spits into a puddle, and just then a car rushes by, spraying all that water on the group of people.  I don’t think this sounds as funny as it really is, because it’s really funny.

The plot of the film is a little scattered and uneven, with long periods of a time in which a character gets stuck in a particular location and then just hangs out there until they’re needed again.  Gang-Doo is stuck in a government hospital where they perform tests on him until he suddenly breaks out.  His sister tries to attack the monster but is swiped aside and falls unconscious down a small shaft where the monster can’t reach her.  She is unconscious for about 20-30 minutes of screen time before she suddenly wakes up for the climactic third act battle.  Gang-Doo’s brother suffers a similar fall where he becomes unconscious, and, again, wakes up at just the right time for battle.

If The Host were a conventional monster film then these structural choices might really hold it back, but the best parts of the film are within individual scenes, so the way those scenes are put together never bothered me.  The focus of the story is on Gang-Doo redeeming himself, and because I was so invested in many of the characters (his in particular), I felt free to go with the story wherever it went.

Another way of putting it is that the gaps in the story where characters disappeared for long periods of time felt like they didn’t serve the monster aspect of the movie, but it didn’t matter because the best parts of the movie focused on character over plot.  For that reason, I suppose, the third act wasn’t as strong as the first two because it required these characters to face the monster, resorting to more conventional battle tactics that we’ve seen in a bunch of movies.

It didn’t feel necessary to me to have the family face off against the monster.  Their growth was in how they banded together to find Hyun-Seo.  Speaking of Hyun-Seo, there’s a whole other plot thread in which we follow her as she tries to find a way out of the monster’s cage in which she and a bunch of other people have been dropped for later consumption.  She hides in a small tunnel so that the monster can’t reach her, but in her escape attempt, the monster catches her and another young boy whom she tries to protect.

At the end of the film, Gang-Doo finds that Hyun-Seo is dead, but the boy is not.  The story ends with Gang-Doo adopting the boy, and they get along just fine, even if Gang-Doo is still a little paranoid about the monster.

This final scene shows the new family eating together, and the boy asks Gang-Doo to turn off the tv because it’s distracting.  On tv there is a report about the findings of the monster’s virus which means something to the audience, but not to these characters.  When they turn the tv off, it feels like they shun the plot which the whole movie is based around, and I think it’s a reminder that this movie was about the characters, never the monster.

But with that being said, there is an obligation to show the monster and, in the end, to show the death of the monster.  I don’t think I’d mind the movie ending with the monster still alive or killed offscreen as long as we received closure for each of the main characters’ storylines.  Gang-Doo wanted to find his daughter, that’s his goal, but once he has his daughter, the fate of the monster is unimportant.  Of course he does finish off the monster, killing him with a pole, and that feels like a form of revenge, and it is.  His father says early on that when a monster/animal kills a human, it’s their responsibility to kill that animal.

But this, and that whole third act battle, felt like the director fulfilling a promise to his audience and the genre.  He could have ended the movie there, but with the addition of that final scene between Gang-Doo and the young boy leaves us with a lasting impact much more quiet and nuanced, of a responsible father caring for a kind son, rather than the loud memory of Gang-Doo killing a CGI monster.

I think the best way to tell certain stories (in movies at least) is to package them within familiar images.  It makes the story and the message much more accessible and most of the time the message is a surprise.  The director, in this case, isn’t trying to overly challenge or fool the audience.  Instead he gives them what they want and, at least in the director’s eyes, he gives them what they need.

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