By Noel Vera
Dir: Bong Joon-ho (2006)
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
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.
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.
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, 09/21/07.
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