The Bigger and Badder Halloween Top 13: #6: The Host (2006)

After yesterday's trip to the land of the rising sun and Destroy All Monsters, I'm taking a slight detour across Asia to another land and another kind of monster, and the real scary thing, folks, is it might just be us. As I've mentioned before, more often than not, giant monsters are not just the source of menace because they will eat you whole and tear down your city, they're about a deep seated fear of an evil or menace beyond containment. Sometimes it's nukes or nature, but I think that today's flick is the only one in which the source of the menace lies between the lines of International politics. To really get into the peril of the film, then you have to know a bit about the history so I will warn you now that later on there might just be a boring preachy part later on. Until then, it's going to be all about a fishy menace that may or may not be spreading a deadly disease when I talk about the 2006 South Korean creature feature, The Host

Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), an often sleepy and slow witted man, runs a food stand along with his father Hee-bong (Byeon Hee-bong) on the banks of The Han river. One day, while the rest of the family is watching Gang-du’s sister compete for a national archery championship, he and many of the diners are surprised to spy a creature of unknown origin hanging from a nearby bridge. They watch in fascination as it slips into the water, and they bait it toward them by throwing snacks in the water. However, the monster isn't interested in sweet treats. It has a taste for blood, and hopping up out of the river, it begins to ravage its way through the crowd. Gang-du first tries to help fight the creature off, but when that doesn't work, he turns his attention to saving his daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seong). While she is captured by the monster and presumed dead, the rest of the spectators are put in quarantine by the officials from the permanent U.S. military base and told that the creature was carrying a virus. When Geng-du gets a call from Hyun-seo, who has been presumed dead, saying she is trapped deep in a sewer where the monster dwells, no one will believe him apart from his family. The group stages a daring attempt to get free and go on a quest to destroy the monster and save Hyun-seo. 

On the surface of The Host, it can be taken plainly and without interpretation as a well executed giant monster movie. The creature, which looks like an amalgam of dozens of types of marine life, looks utterly real throughout, and in a number of places it is both quite gross and quite clever proving that it isn't without reason to go along with its strength. However, from the opening scene, set six years before the events in the film, we are introduced to the idea that the occupying Americans (and make no mistake, any bases we hold in countries we formally warred in is still an occupied land) have no regard for the population of South Korea when they dump a load of formaldehyde into The Han river kicking off the chain of events that will eventually lead to the rise of the monster. This is one of several points in the film inspired by real events. In 2000, a mortician working for the U.S military dumped a large amount of formaldehyde down the drain despite the environmental danger it would cause. The creature itself is also modeled off a deformed fish that was brought out of The Han, and director Bong Joon-ho specifically wanted the creature to look and feel very real. As the director himself once said, “It’s a stretch to simplify The Host as simply an anti-American film, but there is certainly a metaphor and political commentary about the U.S.” This is certainly true because much of the film is about family. 

There are large sections devoted to the character’s rocky relationships from Park Gang-du’s “protein deficiency”, as his father calls it, to his sister’s problem with hesitation, and his brother’s disillusioned former protester  These moments could bog down other, lesser monster features, but here it provides an emotional counterpoint that make’s the Park family’s quest to unite and save each other resonate with the viewer. That being said, Bong Joon-ho does take an ill view of both the U.S. agents (they are portrayed as cross eyed buffoons who seem to always have a secret agenda) to even the South Korean officials (inept, politically stagnant, and seemingly just waiting for a command from their American masters), and the fact that the monster is a living breathing reminder of the actions of these two is no accident. It’s also no coincidence that Joon-ho also brings to mind visions of another Asian conflict when the Americans combat the menace with the colorfully named Agent Yellow, and the first person to fight the monster is a foolishly brave, blonde, buff looking American guy, the very vision of a stereotypical movie hero and a meditation on our foreign policy which is often about large actions with regard for the consequences.  All in all, Joon-ho brings together a film that mixes the emotional, the political, and the terrifying in one giant fishy shaped menace. 

There are two things I have to be honest about when it comes to The Host. Despite South Korea’s reputation for some of the best film making going in the last few years, I find myself often staying away from Asian films as a whole, and they are the area of genre film where I feel I have the least expertise. Secondly, I’m going to talk a bit about the acting, but I often feel strange doing so about anything that is subtitled because I feel there has to be a disconnect between what the actors are saying and the words I am reading. However, with The Host, I felt like the acting was so strong that often wordless moments added more to the rounding of the characters than strings of dialog. Song Kang-ho impresses as Gang-du, and I don't think I've ever seen a performance quite like the one he gives. Emotionally pained with bursts of activity and sometimes even heroism, Kang-ho is an endearing character who pulls you into the film’s action, and though his experience, the film forms its core. Equally impressive is young Ko Ah-seong as his daughter. Ah-seong really impresses in the last half of the film when she herself has to become protector to an even smaller child. While many of the other characters have memorable moments, the supporting cast truly supports Kang-ho and Ah-seong as the events of the film move around them. 

As I said earlier, if someone was to watch the film and take it all on face value, I think it still deserves to be coming in at number 6 on a Top 13 of giant monsters. The film is an amazing reinvigoration of the giant monster genre. Without The Host would films such as Cloverfield (not on my list, but there are people that like it) and Troll Hunter (would have been on this list had I not already reviewed it) have even been made. One of the film’s greatest strengths was keeping the monster realistically sized, perhaps the size of a pickup truck, instead of going over the top with everything. While that makes The Host creature about the second smallest on the list (the rabbits from Night of the Lepus I think would be smaller) it packs a hell of a punch overall. There are so many facets of The Host that work for me, and if it wasn't for a slightly confusing narrative and a couple of key moments where the reality of the monster is lost, it would have easily cracked the top five. Even so, The Host is a great film to watch, and then watch again. I’ve seen it three or four times now, and with each viewing, I come up with an effect I like more, a political statement I understand further, or an emotional moment that resonates harder than it has in the past. While giant monster movies are often open to interpretation after the fact, The Host invites you into its symbolic world and wants you to stay a while. I mean, we do look tasty after all. That’s going to put #6 on the Bigger & Badder to bed, and that means there are only five precious more to go to get us to the big day. So join me back here as it gets down to the nitty gritty, and don't forget to scroll on down and check out today’s submitted list. 

Bugg Rating

Today's list comes to us from the mighty, mighty The Mike of From Midnight, With Love. I know I've said it before, and I will again, but The Mike is a great guy and a great writer. He's also counting down his Top 50 favorite horror flicks over at From Midnight, and I highly encourage checking that out! I can't thank him enough for taking time out to give me a giant monsters list. Take it away, The Mike 

13. Q - The Winged Serpent (1982)
12. Deep Rising (1998)
11. Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)
10. Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)
9. Tremors (1990)
8. Monsters (2010)
7. The Lost World (1925)
6. Them! (1954)
5. Starship Troopers (1997)
4. The Host (2006)
3. The Blob (1958)
2. Gojira (1954)
1. King Kong (1933)

There's more than a few familiar faces on that list including today's film. So you know I think The Mike is on the right trail. I also see a number that could have made the list if I hadn't previously talked about them. So great list on all counts, and speaking of great lists, the Bigger and Badder Halloween Top 13 will continue counting them down tomorrow with #5 hitting the interwebs tomorrow night!

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