‘The Host’ proves horror films can have purpose | AspenTimes.com

‘The Host’ proves horror films can have purpose

Bae Do-naa stars in the South Korean horror-comedy film "The Host," showing this week at the Wheeler Opera House. (Magnolia Pictures)

Among the films screened in last month’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival Film Program was the South Korean film, “The Host.” The brief description in the program alerted me that “The Host” was out of the Asian monster-film tradition, but the fact that it was included in the Comedy Fest caused me to anticipate a humorous twist on the genre – probably not a “Scary Movie”-type spoof, but some other sly take that would elicit laughs.I didn’t see “The Host” at the Comedy Festival. But after seeing it at home a few weeks later, my first thought was of the people who saw the film at the Comedy Fest. Surely they must have believed that someone had been asleep in the projection booth, or that someone’s idea of comedy was to throw a horror film – and a harrowing, touching, thoughtful one at that – into a comedy context, to see the effect on the audience.”The Host,” directed and co-written by Bong Joon-ho, is not entirely without its comic element. But most of that is of the nervous laughter variety, stemming from an effort to figure out just what sort of film this will be. We are dropped into the story in a prologue, with an American military scientist ordering his South Korean lab-mate to pour bottles of toxic formaldehyde into the sink. The drain, warns the underling, empties directly into the Han River. Just obey orders and pour the damn poison, insists the hegemonic Westerner. The nod to sci-fi norms – the lab coats, the scientist’s crazed demands – have a winking effect, but the audience is on uneasy ground.

Flash forward sometime later, and we are treated to a lighter tableau. The Park family is going through its daily routines. Patriarch Hie-Bong (Hie-bong Byeon), the hardworking keeper of a riverside snack shack, is serving squid and chips to weekending Koreans. His son Gang-du (Kang-ho Song) is at his customary perch, asleep inside the shack. When Gang-du wakes, he spends enough time with his daughter Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko) to reveal that Gang-du is as lazy a parent as he is a worker.Enter the dragon – a combination lizard/fish/insect with a ravenous appetite, world-class speed and agility – and no sense of humor. The monster terrorizes the city, stomps some inhabitants, eats others. But it also seems to have an intelligence and a malevolent plan. Some of his human prey is swallowed whole and deposited later in a sewer. Among these is the teenage Hyun-seo.By now any faint vestiges of even a sardonic humor have faded almost to nothing. The Park family retains its underdog goofiness, slightly akin to the misfits of “Little Miss Sunshine.” With his daughter in peril and making the occasional cry for help via cell phone, the shiftless Gang-du comes to life. Staring down the monster and the authorities who have imposed military rule, and bellowing the name of his daughter, Gang-du is a changed man. Joining the search are his siblings, both of whom have their own demons to slay. The brother is a college graduate who has been unable to find work; his sister, a near-champion archer who has been doomed by her slow trigger finger. The three, with their father, frantically scour the urban landscape.

The emphasis is on family, and how urgent situations strengthen the bonds; Gang-du is a transformed man. Placing this message against the backdrop of a monster and a city in turmoil, and with a sensibility that wavers between B-movie and skilled filmmaking gives “The Host” its unique quality.Instead of laughs, the film does deliver contemporary social commentary. “The Host” continually puts us on alert for real-life horrors, from SARS to environmental degradation to war. And remember the American scientist of the prologue? It is not the only time we Americans show our faces. While an actual monster is ravaging the city, an American-led force has concocted a bogus threat of a virus, a ploy to distract the citizens and exert martial law.In the film, as in real life, that is no laughing matter.

“The Host” shows Wednesday and Thursday, April 11-12, at the Wheeler Opera House.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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