Wednesday, July 25, 2007
GWOEMUL (2006) - Joon-ho Bong
Over the last decade, films coming from the Asian region have taken western audiences by storm. Filmmakers from Japan and Korea have shown they have quite an aptitude for genre films. Japan in particular has become a leading force in horror films with the Ringu series leading the way. But Korea has also given us some great films, and one in particular is Joon-Ho Bong's monster movie, Gwoemul, or The Host. The film, released in 2004, quickly became Korea's highest grossing film of all time and it was only a matter of time before word spread and the film reached the western audience.
The Host opens with a generic heartless scientist type (American too) ordering a co-worker to dump their stock-pile of formaldehyde into down the drains of their laboratory. Despite the co-workers protestations that such an act would cause huge problems for Seoul's Han river, the scientist insists that the deed is to be carried out. And the stockpile is poured down the drains. Next we meet the Park family. Park Gang-Du and his father, Hie-Bong run a snack stall beside the Han river. Gang-Du is an immature slacker, sleeping on the job and offering beer to his thirteen year old daughter, Hyun-Seo. His sister, Nam-Joo is an archer by profession, taking part in competitions, but losing out on gold due to a lack of concentration. One particular afternoon, life on the river-side is horifically disrupted as a gigantic mutant emerges from the Han and starts devouring the people of Seoul. Hang-Du attacks the beast in an attempt to help the people, but to no avail. Hyun-Seo is snatched by the beast and dragged into the river and presumed lost. As Gang-Du and his father are quarantined, Nam-Joo and their brother, Nam-Il arrive to mourn their niece's death. But a phone call from a frantic Hyun-Seo convinces the family that the girl is still alive, and they must work together to help save her.
What is most fascinating about The Host, is that director Joon-Ho Bong has managed to create a great film that successfully mixes a number of different genres. Part monster movie, part family film, part comedy, The Host is terrifying at points, yet touching and hilarious at the same time. Monster movies are quite difficult to pull-off. Especially ones where the director chooses to mix so many different styles. Yet Bong makes it look so easy that you wonder how Hollywood keeps missing the mark. The film also serves as a political satire, commenting on subjects like pollution, unemployment, homelessness and military intervention. But these elements are worked into the film perfectly and never become preachy. The direction is amazing. While the special effects aren't quite up there with the likes of ILM's work, they are incredibly good, and prove that films outside the Hollywood system can really compete. Bong shows us plenty of the monster, a horrible yet original creature that isn't afraid to attack in full daylight. The cinematography is also fantastic, creating a really eerie atmosphere when Hyun-Seo is stuck in the mutant's lair in the sewers.
The acting is top-knotch. And this is one of the keys to the film's success. In these types of horror films, it wouldn't be surprising that actors were cast just to serve as bait for the monster. But this is a film about a family, and so the relationship between the characters is vitally important. Kang-ho Song is great as slacker-dad Gang-Du. He manages to play the loser while showing genuine concern for his daughter (Ah-sung Ko). Hie-bong Byeon as Gang-Du's father is the mediator between Gang-Du and his siblings (played by Du-Na Bae and Hae-il Park) who don't think very highly of their slacker brother. Each performance is genuine, you know these characters really want to save the little girl.
In a time where horror movies are in becoming merely a place where directors can throw buckets of blood at the camera, it's really great to see a film, particularly a monster film, that is entertaining and thrilling. The mixture of genres works particularly well, making this a film that should have something for everyone. Hollywood should sit up and take notice. Joon-Ho Bong's The Host is a lesson in how to make a great film.