Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006)

Bong Joon-ho is about to break out in a very big way. His new movie Parasite – a satirical thriller literalizing an upstairs vs. downstairs situation with a rich vs. poor family in Seoul – took the film festivals by storm. He became the first South Korean to win Cannes’ Palme d’Or and is possibly on track to repeat that feat at the Oscars, which has never before nominated a South Korean film for a single award. Parasite, awards analysts predict, will not only become South Korea’s first-ever Oscar nominee but it might just compete in every major category, including Best Picture and Best Director.

So, basically, if you’ve been sleeping on Joon-ho’s career to this point you better start filling in your blindspots because he’s about to be everywhere during awards season. Don’t feel like I’m judging you with that last statement. It’s ok if you haven’t seen everything he’s ever made. (Parasite, for the record, is his 7th feature-length film.)

Before today, Okja and Snowpiercer were the only Joon-ho films I’d seen. Thanks to a recommendation in the New York Times, however, I circled further back into his career and checked out 2006’s The Host, an allegorical monster movie that just about upends the genre. It was, at the time of its release, the highest-grossing film in South Korean history. It’s what put Joon-ho on the map. I can see why.

What’s It About?

A mysterious river monster emerges and instantly victimizes the most vulnerable citizens of Seoul, swallowing some people whole and taking others away to a sewer to be digested later. One of those victims dropped off in the sewer is an adorable little girl (Go Ah-sung) who manages to survive by hiding in a nearby tunnel.

Her family – a dimwitted dad with garish blonde tips (Song Kang-ho), well-meaning grandfather (Byun Hee-bong), alcoholic, unemployed uncle (Park Hae-il), and an aunt who happens to be an Olympic-quality archer (Bae Doona) – set about trying to rescue her. To do so, they have to contend with systemic corruption, incompetence, and the toxic Americans who created the damn monster in the first place.

Why I Watched It

The New York Times’ “Watching” newsletter contained the following recommendation for anyone waiting for Parasite to come to their neck of the woods:

Bong Joon Ho’s Palme d’Or-winning film “Parasite” opened in American theaters last week to near-universal acclaim, including from our own Manohla Dargis, who praised its balance of detailed storytelling with universal concerns about “human dignity, class, life itself.” Bong’s 2007 Korean-language film “The Host” is an early glimpse at his deftness at navigating those themes, which form the core of all his major work — this time in a movie about a slithering, man-eating river monster.

Did I Like It?

In 2013, Quentin Tarantino hopped on a plane to attend the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea with little advanced warning. Addressing the stunned audience during a stage interview opposite Bong Joon-ho, he admitted, “I came here quite impulsively actually, to hangout with Bong.”

Two years earlier, Tarantino put two of Bong’s movies on his favorite 20 films since 1992The Host came it at #10 and 2003’s Memories of a Murder at #15. So, the fandom was real, and when the two were finally on the same stage together a mutual admiration society broke out. In what turned into a widely requoted bit of praise, Tarantino favorably compared Bong to Speilberg in his prime, “Of all the filmmakers out there in the last 20 years, [Bong] has something that [1970s] Spielberg has. There is this level of entertainment and comedy in his films. [The Host and Memories of Murder] are both masterpieces … great in their own way.”

They agreed that as students of cinema their approach is always to reinvent whatever genre they’re working in, and that certainly applies to The Host. As Bong summarized with a bit of a chuckle, “In the U.S., scientists, soldiers, and muscular superheroes fight against monsters, but in [The Host] a Korean family, a messed up, really idiotic one at that, fights the monster.”

Tarantino, energetic and motormouthed as always, quickly chimed in, “It’s funny because the whole idea that a family, not just any family, but a weird, fucked-up family like in The Host would be the stars is unfathomable in the U.S., or any country. That is recreating the genre.”

Given all of that, it would be awfully awkward if I were to now turn around and claim The Host is some overrated bit of hogwash or that Tarantino should save his film criticism to himself and focus more on trying to find a new trick since his revisionist history thing seems played out by now. But I can’t. The Host is truly quite masterful, deftly balancing scares, thrills, laughs, heartbreak, and stinging social commentary.

For example, as an American viewer, the film’s opening scene hurts so much because it’s sadly so true. A belligerent American scientist orders his reluctant South Korean underling to dump a toxic amount of formaldehyde down the drain, completely ignoring regulations and “won’t it drain into the Wan River?” protestations. This Dr. Strangelove-esque opening exists to explain how exactly the river monster is created, but it also establishes a theme that runs throughout the film: Americans can’t be trusted.

Joon-ho has pushed back on that reading, arguing his film shouldn’t be so completely simplified as an anti-American screed. The South Korean government doesn’t come off well either in The Host. That’s because across all of his films Joon-ho places his faith in people, especially the underclass, and not in systems, and he finds immense comedy and drama in placing the ordinary people of the world directly in-between larger, threatening entities.

As Vulture recently argued in its profile of the director, “His films are rooted in genre conventions like action and horror that eventually give way to crushing realism. Memories of Murder is a scathing black comedy about police incompetence, The Host is an indictment of American hubris disguised as a monster movie, and Okja is a Totoro-esque escape story until the gears of factory farming begin to turn.”

Bong is the first to admit he uses genre to work through the various anxieties he feels about the world. With The Host, the inspiration wasn’t too hard to find. In 2000, an American doctor named Albert McFarland reportedly ordered a South Korean underling at the Yongsan base to empty 480 formaldehyde bottles from the morgue into a drain leading to the Wan River. A jurisprudence debate soon broke out as the Americans and South Koreans quarreled over who exactly had the legal right to prosecute the case. Ultimately, McFarland was suspended for two years, but by the time The Host hit theaters he was back in his old job at Yongsan.

“At the time that The Host was in its planning stages is when news of the McFarland toxic chemical dumping incident was in the press,” Bong Joon-ho has said. “If Hollywood can constantly depict other nations as villains, then why can’t the U.S. become the object of satire in the films of other nations?”

The working-class family at the heart of The Host doesn’t care about any of that, of course. Mostly, the family seeks only to survive and rescue a little girl, yet Bong finds surprising laughter out of that, such as when an emergency worker attempts to calm the quarantined masses by showing them the local news on a giant TV and then freaks out when the news isn’t actually on yet. Plus, there are so many surprisingly little comic asides sprinkled throughout, such as the unemployed, college graduate uncle complaining, “I wasted four years of my life protesting for democracy. They can’t give me a job now?” Later, a conversation between that uncle and a former classmate turns into an assessment of their respective credit card debt.

It’s enough to keep you on your toes and remind you that this film has more on its mind than just monster movie scares. When the actual monster is around, however, it’s a fascinating creature to behold. The CGI hasn’t aged well, yet the monster is still interesting to look at. By the end, I still couldn’t count how many folds it had in its mouth.

Did It Scare Me?

There are a couple of quality jump scares with the girl and the monster in the sewer.

Where to Stream

According to JustWatch: Currently, you are able to watch “The Host” streaming on Hoopla or for free with ads on Pluto TV, Tubi TV. It is also possible to rent “The Host” on PlayStation, Vudu, Google Play Movies, YouTube, FlixFling online and to download it on PlayStation, Vudu, Google Play Movies, YouTube, FlixFling.

31 Days of Halloween So Far:

Next Up: Bong Joon-ho famously engaged in a standoff with Harvey Weinstein over the final cut of Snowpiercer, his first American film. Guillermo del Toro can relate. He too quarreled with a Weinstein on the set of his first American film.

5 comments

  1. For me, The Host works as family drama first, then a monster movie. Yes, the CGI don’t look good in parts. But since it’s a CG monster, some of those imperfections adds to its otherworldly qualities, which gives me an eerie feeling—like the early CG in The Terminator or the stop motion robot in RoboCop.

    “fucked-up family like in The Host would be the stars is unfathomable in the U.S., or any country.”

    Or ANY country? QT’s talking out of his ass. Replace fuck-up with dysfunctional and you’ll prolly gonna come up with a list of movies with similar premise. I also don’t think there’s as much sharp social commentary in Spielberg’s movies as with Bong’s films.

    What’s really amazing is how Bong blends and mixes different genres and social commentary and sometimes the result is so seamless, like Parasite, which works like like heist movie.

    I would definitely recommend Memories of Murder, which some critics considers as Bong’s best. I also heard good things on Barking Dogs Don’t Bite but haven’t seen it yet.

    1. “For me, The Host works as family drama first, then a monster movie.”

      Same here.

      “Yes, the CGI don’t look good in parts. But since it’s a CG monster, some of those imperfections adds to its otherworldly qualities, which gives me an eerie feeling—like the early CG in The Terminator or the stop motion robot in RoboCop.”

      I think that’s a fair reading, and, really, for a 2006 South Korean film the CGI is far better than I’d normally expect. I know that the gap between Hollywood CGI vs. international film CGI is closing as technologies advance and other film markets build up enough work experience and knowledge capital to be able to compete. However, my experience is that international films still have a noticeable stepdown in quality with CGI, sometimes to a cringe-worthy extent. The Host, for the most part, however, does well with its CGI, and when it doesn’t you’re right that it simply adds to the otherworldly appeal.

      “Replace fuck-up with dysfunctional and you’ll prolly gonna come up with a list of movies with similar premise”

      Spielberg’s War of the Worlds comes to mind, and that was in 2005. Plus, I know of a couple of Godzilla movies which ultimately trap dysfunctional families – usually just a parent and a child – in-between the mayhem. Still, I don’t know that I’ve seen it done quite the way The Host does, and I think’s because of what you said about Bong’s strengths:

      “What’s really amazing is how Bong blends and mixes different genres and social commentary and sometimes the result is so seamless, like Parasite, which works like like heist movie.”

      “I would definitely recommend Memories of Murder, which some critics considers as Bong’s best. I also heard good things on Barking Dogs Don’t Bite but haven’t seen it yet.”

      I am a bit clueless about both of those. I think I might add Memories of Murder to my watchlist and if I can find it I’ll just watch it without reading about it. As of now, I know next to nothing about it, and the same was true of The Host before I started it.

      As for Parasite, as luck would have it it is playing today and tomorrow at a film festival in town. So, I’ll be seeing it this weekend. So excited.

      1. Parasite isn’t getting a wide release in the US? Anyway, I hope you’d write about it after.

        Btw, Memories is on Amazon Prime.

        “As of now, I know next to nothing about it, and the same was true of The Host before I started it.”

        Yeah, I think that’s the best way to approach it. Not knowing too much. It’s enough to know that critics/people highly recommend them.

        I remember my gf telling me that The Host was disappointing. She expected a thrilling monster movie, maybe something like Jurrassic Park. And I was thinking “really? That scene where the siblings fight the monster was so packed with emotions it really got me. It even felt a little sad when the monster dies.”

      2. Parasite MIGHT eventually get a wide release. It’s been picked up in the states by NEON, the same distributor behind I, Tonya. They’re running with a traditional platform release, and it seems to be working. When they opened it in just LA and NY, it had one of the best per-screen averages of any limited release in history. They upped the theater count to around 30 this past weekend and it almost cracked the top 10 (it came in at #11). So, even though it played in my town at a film festival it’s entirely possible it will be playing in one of our AMC or Regal theaters within the next couple of weeks. I am still unclear how exactly my local festival managed to land the film. They did announce it months ago, before the word of mouth had built to such a fever pitch.

        “I remember my gf telling me that The Host was disappointing. She expected a thrilling monster movie, maybe something like Jurrassic Park. And I was thinking “really? That scene where the siblings fight the monster was so packed with emotions it really got me. It even felt a little sad when the monster dies.””

        The Jurassic Park reference is interesting because when The Host has that sequence with the two little kids running from the creature in the sewer – the girl first trying to climb up it to escape and then trying not to awake it and then running for her life and narrowly escaping around a corner only to quickly discover she hadn’t escaped at all – and it’s not entirely dissimilar to the infamous velociraptor chase scene in the kitchen in the first Jurassic Park. I do agree about the emotions the film impressively packs into its monster movie scares, and by the end, it’s become so clear that the Americans are the true bad guys that the monster’s death is kind of sad, even as it has two small, innocent children trapped in its mouth. There’s such a senselessness to it all, the arrogance of one people leading to life-and-death consequences for another and a chaotic state of affairs for a monster didn’t ask to be created and is truly just acting on impulse.

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