Bong Joon-ho's Gwoemul (The Host, 2006) is terrific stuff, as much for being a family movie as for being a horror flick, but that's pretty much the secret appeal of almost any classic creature. James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) is really about parental responsibility and the neglect of the offspring; Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is about the abused child's development of an operating moral sense; Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's King Kong (1933) isn't so much a love story as it is a cautionary fable about a big brute's hopeless infatuation with (what else?) an airhead blonde (that's why the remake's so lame--it insists on being a love story); Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks' The Thing (1951) is about maintaining efficiency in the face of human weakness and overall chaos; Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) is about the impotence of human hubris (it's also about accepting a new and unlikely member into a rather ingrown family); Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) is about obsession and the comedy of male bonding. The creature (and the special effects used to create it) may be what draws the audience in, but it's always the human element--either suggested in the creature, or found among the victims or pursuers--that people savor and remember.
In Bong's case, it's about a dysfunctional family finding its priorities and learning how to operate as a unit. The slow-witted, blond-haired Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) runs a food stand alongside the Han River with his father Park Hee-bong (Byeon Hee-bong) and daughter Park Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seong) when a monster rears out of the river and starts chomping down on innocent bystanders. Seems that many years ago an American military pathologist ordered his lab technician to empty a hundred bottles of formaldehyde into the drain, which apparently has a mutating effect on the riparian marine life (why that would be I'm not sure--formaldehyde's been dumped in water before, and I have yet to hear any recent news of giant mutant lizard-frogs walking the planet). Hee-bong and Gang-du escape, but Hyun-seo is snatched at the last minute by the monster's wonderfully prehensile tail to be snatched away, presumably eaten.
At the mass funeral for all the riverside victims, we meet the last two members of the family: Park Nam-joo (Bae Doona), a national archery medallist who can't seem to win a medal thanks to her indecisiveness, and Nam-Il (Park Hae-il), a college graduate who can't hold down a job, thanks to his alcoholism. Bong throws in an additional plot detail: the government has swooped in, putting everyone who has come into contact with the creature under emergency quarantine--apparently the monster has a deadly, contagious virus that they're trying to contain.
How the Park family evades government attempts at containment and hunts down the monster occupies the main body of the picture; along the way we get a mysterious cell phone call (is Hyun-seo haunting her father from beyond the grave?), scenes that can only inspire paranoia in viewers about government health policies (a particularly stubborn prisoner/patient is subjected to (ethically dubious) electroshock treatment), scenes of low slapstick and poignant sacrifice.
Many American critics have marveled at how Bong can turn on a dime when telling a story, cramming as many emotional tones in so many minutes as the monster can cram human bodies into his cavernous craw but really, this isn't anything new--Hong Kong studios stuff their horror with comedy, their tragedies with slapstick and their action with plenty of bathos; Filipino filmmaker Rico Maria Ilarde often throws various genres (fantasy, martial arts, the noir thriller, futuristic science fiction) into his horror pictures. One can think of it as a value-driven virtue--more bang for the pan-Asian buck--but I tend to think of it as more an issue about inhibitions, as in there's precious little in most Asian filmmakers: whatever flows, goes, the word "shame" is an unfamiliar term, and if you can wring every drop of sorrow from a child's death and still somehow bring the child back to life (and his pet puppy, too), then hooray for you and that's yet another million in the boxoffice till. There's also some alchemy on the part of the viewers, who can follow the emotional twists and turns without too much trouble, or voluble demands for credibility.
And Bong does have an eye for finding beauty in the grotesque (a requisite, in my opinion, for making memorable horror), from the creature's loping, sinuous gallop (it looks like the result of an unholy union between a stallion and a Gila monster) to the sequences of slow motion (starting from when Gang-du grabs at what he thinks is his daughter's hand) to the fog scenes where monster and attackers emerge from out of the clouds of poisoned gas.
There's political subtext--the incident with the formaldehyde mirrors a real event involving an American military mortician, and the mysterious "Agent Yellow" the government threatens to use on the virus is a reference to the Agent Orange used by the United States on Vietnam. The South Korean government is characterized as being too paranoid, too eager to use truncheons on its hapless populace, and too subservient to American demands; the United States government in turn is seen as arrogant and imperious, willing and able to try an untested chemical agent on the riverbanks of an Asian ally. Nam-il is seen to be the educated Korean intellectual who has failed at attaining the required materially successful life; in protest he picks up a Molotov cocktail (shades of the college riots in the '80s) and tosses it at the creature. The Han River, where much of the action takes place, is so emblematic of economic success in the sixties and seventies that the period was called "the Miracle of the Han."
But these are all side issues. Bong is careful to keep Gang-du and his bond with Hyun-seo--dramatically broken by the creature--front and center; it's to his character that we're asked to hand over our fullest sympathies. At one point Hee-bong explains to his smarter offspring why he thinks Gang-du became retarded, and it's a sad tale of neglect and sacrifice. More than just scaring the pee out of you, or leaving you in flop sweat from the tension, Gwoemul is out to jerk what tears you have left; it's out for all your bodily fluids, and that's the fun of it.
(First published in Businessworld 9/21/07)