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Operation Condor

Jackie Chan meets Indiana Jones —Andrea Birgers (review...)

Chan borrows from Raiders

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The Host is a fun monster movie from Korea. Think Godzilla, but with better special effects and better all-around filmmaking.

Something in the Water

The thing rampages through a riverside park. The scene is wicked fun, with convincing footage
The thing rampages through a riverside park. The scene is wicked fun, with convincing footage

Like Godzilla, the monster in The Host is a mutant created by pollution. Even more specifically, it’s created by pollution caused by the United States military. Godzilla was created by radiation left over from the WWII A-bombs; this critter mutates because of chemicals dumped into the Han river by a loony scientist working for the U.S. Army.

The creature is also accused of being the host of a parasitic virus, although that’s a suspicious claim along the lines of the Gulf of Tonkin incident or Iraqi WMDs — a convenient, unsupported assertion that gives the Americans a nice pretext for empire-building.

But where another film might make these connections its primary subtext, The Host includes them in the background, and then moves on to its real subtext, which is about family loyalty.

The Demise of the Nuclear Family

Our main characters are a family consisting of a patriarch, two brothers and a sister, and the daughter of the brother with the dyed-blond hair.

The monster appears early in the movie. Picnickers gawk at it hanging from the bridge over the river. But soon the thing comes ashore and starts rampaging through the crowded riverside park. The scene is wicked fun, with very convincing footage of the monster chasing crowds of people, stopping long enough to chomp one or two bystanders. Gang-Du (the blond father, played by Kang-ho Song) is out among the crowds trying to rescue his daughter, but the monster wraps her up in its tail and swims across the river.

The monster has stashed the daughter, Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko) away in its sewer lair for a snack later. Unfortunately, none of her co-captors (most of them dead) seems to have a working cell phone. Meanwhile the family pines for their dead little girl amid the New Orleans-style emergency shelter set up in the aftermath.

The government takes an interest in the Park family when Gang-Du admits he had a close encounter with the beast. They want to “help” the Park family the way that Paul Rieser wanted to “help” Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, so the Parks take it on the lam, not long after Gang-Du gets a garbled phone call from his daughter saying something about a “big” sewer. She is still alive! And they hope they can track her down before the military catches them.

Overlaid on the Park family’s story is the Americans’ announcement that they will be releasing a deadly poison called Agent Yellow, and the Korean public is none too happy about it, especially given America’s tarnished reputation for foreign policy.

Pulling Punches

Part of what makes a good horror film great is a hard-hitting subtext. And although there are many pointed comments in The Host, they never really come together in a coherent attack on American imperialism or Korean naivete. In this way, The Host feels incomplete. A more ruthless and focused version would have been a much tastier a treat.

Instead, the “family coherence” message takes center stage. That’s probably not the best choice for this movie, because the movie doesn’t have much to say about families other than “stick together.” Maybe that’s what director Bong Joon-ho thinks Korean audiences need to hear, but it’s not as interesting or monster-worthy as political abuses by the world’s largest superpower.

The Host got almost universally favorable reviews, both as political commentary and as downright fun. It is both serious and campy, like the best monster movies. For me, the movie doesn’t quite live up to the hype; it’s thin in places and slow in others. But it’s still a lot of fun, and much better produced than most of the Godzilla movies.

DVD Extras

The two-disc Collector’s Edition boasts four hours of extra features, including audio commentary, storyboards, documentaries galore, “and much more...!”

I confess I didn’t have four spare hours to peruse all the extra features. Of the extras on disc one, the director’s “reflections” were amusing, and accidentally informative. In this featurette, director Bong Joon-ho apologizes to all of the actors who were cut from the film, all of the actors who had to wear masks that hid their faces from the camera, and everyone stuck in traffic that was stopped to allow the cameras to roll. How a man as sensitive as Bong ever commanded a cast and crew is a wonder.

As for the rest of the extra features, I’m afraid you’re on your own this time. Better yet, post your comments below and let the rest of us know what’s worth a look.

Picture and Sound

Picture and sound are both excellent. This is a highly polished, professional production. The picture is enhanced for widescreen TVs and the audio is encoded in Dolby Digital 5.1.

How to Use this DVD

Watch the movie if you haven’t already seen it. Depending on how well you liked it, start diving into the extra features. Don’t clear your entire day to watch every last interview, but see how far you get. Then come back to this page and let us know how those extras are.