In Memories of Murder, the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho made an interesting point about the police procedural – that no matter how “tortured” the cop/protagonist, no matter how broken his background, how fractured his family life, how severe his problem with drink, he always remains a hero. Not in Memories of Murder he doesn’t. Nor did the case get solved by inspiration, Sherlock Holmes-ian deduction, or even solid police work – it was mostly luck, that’s when the cops weren’t beating information out of people. The Host is Bong’s observations on the creature feature, another home for the hero. But, again, not here. Bong first gives us a bit of Godzilla-style backstory – toxic waste pouring into Seoul’s River Han has caused a hideous mutation to take place. Meanwhile, on dry land, we meet the family that’s going to be most closely affected once the creature decides to crawl out of the river and go postal – among them a drunken, no-good dad, a horrible sniping brother and a worthy, decent sister who, we learn, was an Olympic archer. In Hollywood there would be only one possible outcome here – that the decent girl would eventually rise to become the hero character. But will she in South Korea? What, for instance is the significance of the fact that she only won a bronze medal when she was at the Olympics? Is the monster going to offer her a chance to go for gold?
Bong takes time to introduce his characters, works within the obviously limited budget to deliver a creature that’s a piece of work, all tail and mouth, as horrible as it is athletic as it is intriguing. And then he plays the intrigue game with the characters, shifting the focus and our expectations from one to the next, sharing out redemption between them, because redemption and heroism are also often linked, he’s making clear. But like Memories of Murder, the strength of The Host is that you can ignore all this “commentary on a genre” aspect entirely and watch it as a straight-out creature feature and it’s very good indeed – fresh, thrilling, tense, humane, even funny now and again – there’s nothing arched or forced.
Films like this are often referred to as a Hollywood calling card, which is a tremendously Victorian way of putting things, but in Bong’s case his film is more like fan-fiction – he clearly knows his sources but is taking things into his own universe, in his own way, as well as he can with the money to hand. If Hollywood wants him, it’s most likely going to be on his terms.
© Steve Morrissey 2006