According to Box Office Mojo, the number one movie in America in 2006 was Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. You know, the second installment of the Pirates franchise. While it had some good parts. namely anything with fish monster Davy Jones. Meanwhile, in South Korea, the top film was a movie about a different fish monster called The Host. While it doesn’t feature any of Johnny Depp’s drunken swagger, I will take the controversial opinion that it is the better movie.
Incidentally, this movie should not be confused with the 2013 American movie, The Host. That one is based on a book by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer. Bafflingly, it’s the Stephenie Meyer movie that’s currently streaming on Netflix.
In a movie full of memorable moments, my favorite scene in The Host is one that has nothing to do with the fish monster. The family gathers at a shelter after they believe that a young girl, Hyun-Seo (Go Ah-sung), is dead. For all they know, she is fish food. They all eventually they fall on the floor, sobbing. Though rooted in tragedy, it’s now a now a comedy bit where these family members look a little goofy in their grief. We then flash forward. The family is all tired out and sleeping on the ground. A grim-faced government worker enters the shelter, which is now deathly quiet.
After which he immediately slips on the floor.
I had so expected the movie to have switched back from “comedy” to “maudlin” that the comedy bit caught me way off guard. “Oh, come ON!” I said aloud, but laughing at the same time. I didn’t think we were still doing pratfalls.
It’s part of this movie’s weird tone that alternates between terrifying and silly. Threats are presented as legitimate danger, and then undercut a little through the actions of clumsy, bumbling characters.
The dichotomy is embodied by the fish monster itself. Yes, it’s a frightening beast that stalks its prey in the night. It captures and eats several people. There are some creepy moments when it sprouts eyes in places you didn’t think it had them. But… look at that thing. It looks like Big Mouth Billy Bass with extra appendages. It’s a top-heavy fish with features that we often get to see in full sunlight. That old adage about keeping the monster in the dark or keeping it unseen to maximize terror? You know, like in Alien? Well, director Bong Joon-Ho don’t care about your rules, man. He’s going to what he wants!
The Host is often referred to as a horror movie, but for me the monster design mitigates that somewhat. If you’re a person who doesn’t like horror movies and are worried that this movie might be too scary: I didn’t think it was frightening at all. It’s got a little too much Godzilla in its DNA. A compact model for when the full size or luxury brand of kaiju is just too much for you.
The monster is birthed by an unethical American scientist who flushes some expired formaldehyde out into the Han River. (This action was based on a real life incident perpetrated by an employee working for the US military.) The chemical cocktail causes something sinister to grow in the water.
Bleach-haired shopkeeper Gang-du (played by one Kang-ho), little Hyun-Seo’s lazy father, joins a crowd to gawk at a giant thing hanging off the bottom of the bridge like a big Hefty bag. Some of the onlookers speculate that this is guerrilla advertising. They watch as the thing slips into the water. Some of them throw garbage in the water to attract its attention.
And then, suddenly, a giant ungainly beast shambles across the shoreline. It swings its tail and knocking people around. It’s slipping down the steep embankment as it loses its footing. Its leg snags onto a young woman’s headphones and drags her across the ground. It acts as if it’s just as bewildered as the crowd to be caught in this situation.
Hyun-Seo is caught and captured by the creature. She’s dumped into a dark pit being saved as a snack. She spends the majority of the movie trying to survive. She looks for ways to escape, place to hide, and, eventually, trying to rescue a fellow captive.
She ends up being the film’s real hero. Go Ah-Sung conveys both a wide-eyed fear when confronting the horrors of the creature (which probably couldn’t have been all that easy, given that in real life it was probably this CGI thing) and embodies bravery and resolve in the face of certain doom. If I were given the dream wish of traveling back in time and refilming the anime portion of Kill Bill in live action, I would see if Ah-Sung were up for some dramatic acting.
Hyun-Seo finds a dying cellphone, which she places a phone call to her dad. He then assembles his family to help: his father and Hyun-Seo’s grandfather (Byun Hee-Bong); his sister, the pro archer (Bae Doona), and his drunk brother (Park Hae-il). They sneak into the area where the monster has been sited, which has since been fenced off by the military in order to maintain a quarantine. Since they’re collectively a bunch of losers, though, things rapidly go sideways. There’s a monster stalking them at one end. The government, trying to hide their complicity in the monster’s creation, hunts them down at the other.
It’s amazing to me that this movie only cost a reasonable $10 million to make. According to Wikipedia, this was actually a generous amount in Korea, and it was a testament of the studio’s confidence in Bong Joon-Ho’s directorial capabilities. But still! For comparison, that Pirates of the Caribbean film that topped the American box office cost $225 million. The Host doesn’t look that much cheaper. The monster was created by some of the world’s best special effects wizards. It was modeled by New Zealand’s Weta Workshop, and the animatronics done by the special effects artists behind Babe.
My guess is that they saved a bunch of money on the limited location shoot — almost everything takes place around the same bridge. Still, it’s an amazingly effective use of the location. Even when the group splits up, you’re never confused where everyone is as any given moment. Even when one character is hiding in a bridge, another is curled up in an underpass, and another has been captured by the government, you get a very good sense of where everyone is in relation to the other. Yet it’s so an efficient that every location feels unique and spacious. Much props to cinematographer Hyung-Ku Kim.
If you are prone to making hot takes, there are many ways to analyze this movie. Many critics have latch onto its commentary on the American military and its unchecked atrocities against innocent civilians. North Korea certainly did. The Host was public ally praised for its perceived anti-American stance. Others see it as an indictment of Korea itself. I mentioned how the Animal Liberation Front in Okja was seen as being comically ineffective. The same can be said of the protestors in this movie, who wave placards and rally but are ultimately useless in preventing the release of a chemical agent.
For me though, it’s most importantly a uniquely Korean monster movie, and one of the best ever made. It’s scary, funny, and thrilling… delivering more crowdpleasing moments than that movie where Johnny Depp has a sword fight atop a hamster wheel.
NEXT: time to create some excitement! Get ready to make some noise with India’s Dhoom 2.