The Language Barrier And The Beast
The Host is a new South Korean movie. I live in South Korea. I went and saw The Host here, in South Korea, which means that I saw it without subtitles. I know a decent amount of Korean, but not nearly enough to follow a movie. Could this be the world’s first purely speculative film review?
Fortunately, The Host is a monster movie, so that makes things a little easier. But it’s a monster movie written and directed by Bong Joon-ho, the man responsible for Memories of Murder, a thoughtful, character-and-relationship film about the police pursuit of Korea’s first serial killer (but that doesn’t mean it’s of the same genre as Seven or The Silence of the Lambs at all). Memories of Murder is a film made by a skilled storyteller, the kind of guy who wouldn’t just toss some CG and carnage at us and call it a day. I was expecting some kind of depth to The Host, and I was afraid it would come in the form of people-talking-to-each-other.
I think I was right — I’m sure I did miss out on some subtext, but I got the most important stuff. The basic plot is that a large creature comes up out of the Han (a very large river bisecting Seoul), does a bit of damage, then snatches a young girl and takes off. The girl’s family sets out on a mission to find her. This is the area I feared I’d be left out on — not the plot of it, but I expected Bong Joon-ho to really push the emotion driving this family, and now that I’ve seen it, I’d wager that he did, or at least the actors suggested to me that he did.
There are some plot elements I still don’t understand, but there are enough that I do — even one of the big revelations towards the end of the story was, lucky for me, revealed in English. Unlucky for me, the wider context of that revelation was not, so I can’t really say if it was a good one.
The opening scene, where we learn the creature’s origin, was also delivered in English, so I do know who to blame for the beast — as is the trend in Korean cinema these days, it’s the Americans. Unlike in Canada, where the Americans may be thought of as villains for how they spread out into the world, in South Korea this opinion comes from how they’ve spread in. The U.S. military presence in Seoul and at the DMZ is viewed almost as though they’re an occupying force by the general public, and as a result they’ve been the bullying badguys in more than a few of the films I’ve seen. The American scientist from the first scene is presented as cartoonishly evil as he instructs his Korean subordinate to dump dozens of bottles of “off” formaldehyde down the sink where, they’re nice enough to explain, it’ll run into the Han river. It’s a bad enough scene as it is, but even worse when you consider that the Koreans don’t need Uncle Sam’s help contaminating their water — Seoul is one of the most polluted cities on the planet. Maybe they referred to this later on, even took responsibility in some twist I couldn’t understand (which would be clever, poignant, and admirable), but I doubt it.
One thing that came across loud and clear was the monster — no communication issues there. It’s got what can best be described as an “interesting” design. It’s very bizarre and deliberately unnatural — a creature that looks like it’s not meant to exist as an emphasis for how it shouldn’t. On land it’s a total klutz, flopping along the ground, stumbling and falling (a trait amusingly shared by the main human character). It isn’t scary in the way movie monsters who lurk in the shadows are traditionally designed to be, and it’s not supposed to — it’s shown in full daylight most of the time (even if all I’m giving you is that spooky pic to the right), and while it isn’t directly frightening, the unique and plausible way its rampages are presented, it’s easy to understand and sympathize with the fear of the fleeing Asians. This river monster has an inventive and unexpected design, and I think a pretty great one.
For the most part, I don’t really know if Bong Joon-ho was able to lift the monster-terrorizes-city genre to new heights, but I’d say he got some of the finest performances I’ve seen in a film of this type. Practically every actor was strong in this film (the exceptions being the foreigners speaking English — these are roles which are never well-filled in Korean movies, though I’ve often wondered if local audiences pick up on this…), but I’ll mention only one in particular here: the father of the snatched girl is played by Song Kang-ho, who was already a pretty big star here, and he’s one of my favorite Korean actors. He was in Bong Joon-ho’s previous film Memories of Murder, as well as two from Korea’s best director, Park Chan-wook — JSA and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance — and he’s great in them all. In The Host he showed sorrow, paternal strength, and a likable humour, and he didn’t even need his lines to be understood to pull it off.
One big question that’s going to sit with me for a while is about the title: what does “The Host” really mean? The literal translation of the Korean title (괴물, pronounced “gway-mool” ) is just “Monster” — but The Host may actually be a better, multi-layered title (at the very least, it’s a less generic title, by western standards). I base this theory on a late plot development of which I think there’s a chance of a possibility that I may have understood some aspects of it, but then I could also be way the hell off. In December, when the DVD comes bearing English subtitles (as all Korean DVD’s do, bless their hearts), I’ll get my answer, and I’m sure it’ll move my appreciation for the film to a whole other level as well. But will that level change be in on the positive axis, or on the negative; will complicated details of character psychology and environmental messages that cut to the bone be revealed, or will every word said turn out to have been silly, cheap, thin, stupid, awkward, obvious, and shallow? I suppose that either way, it’s still a good movie. But good for a monster-rampage movie, or good for a movie, period? Really, there’s a lot more than just dialogue to gauge the amount of skill there is working behind a film; based on all that other stuff, the safest bet is that The Host is just a flat-out really great film. Just don’t hold me to that.
Postscript: You kids back home will actually have the opportunity to find all this out before I do — The Host will be at the Toronto International Film Festival in September under the Midnight Madness programme, and the Internet buzz is that if it performs well there, it may even get a North American theatrical run a month later, having already been picked up for NA distribution after a very strong showing at Cannes. laebmada