Saturday, April 14, 2007

Don't drink the water. Or do.

OK, maybe I'm a little late, given that it opened in the U.S. a month ago. But I've been meaning to write about the most joyous movie I've seen in a long time, Bong Joon-ho's The Host. The soundbite pitch is Godzilla meets Jaws meets Aliens meets The Simpsons. In Korean.

Really, I shouldn't have to say anything after that.

But in case you're still not convinced: This is the scariest, funniest, smartest giant-monster-on-the-loose movie I've ever seen, and maybe the only example of that subgenre besides Jaws and the original King Kong that's a flat-out great movie, a classic. (Yes, yes, I like the original '54 Godzilla just fine, but really, it ain't up to these standards.) And if the USA had a sane film culture, people would be packing multiplexes across the country to see it, like they did in South Korea last summer when it ate every box office record whole. When I saw it at the New York Film Festival in October, the enormous, packed auditorium screamed, laughed, cheered and applauded all the way through.

But it's got subtitles. So its American release, while unusually broad for a foreign-language picture, has still been typically half-hearted. Contrary to my briefly entertained fantasies, it hasn't exactly done Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon business, but sturdy little Magnolia Pictures appears to be forging ahead with it - at least the official schedule for the gradual rollout hasn't been cut back noticeably.

In a nutshell, the story has chemical dumping by the American military resulting in an amphibious mutant crawling out of the Han River right in the middle of Seoul to snack and stomp on the residents. Cue the requisite mass panic, military quarantines and grim-faced officials and scientists pronouncing from TV sets. But instead of the usual suspects, the movie centers around an ordinary-at-best family caught up in the chaos - a shlubby, loudly dysfunctional and not terribly bright brood you might not trust to catsit for a weekend, let alone battle a maneating monster. (Thanks to for the family portrait.)

But the Parks are endearing and entertaining enough to carry a movie all by themselves, even if there weren't a creepy-cool creature for them to share the screen with (it doesn't hurt that the family includes my two favorite Korean actors, Song Kang-ho and Bae Doo-na). They're the heart of The Host, the single most important factor making this ordinary-in-outline movie extraordinary. Which isn't to discount one of the most convincing and paradoxically beautiful digital monsters to date; the "look-behind-you" suspense and popcorn-spilling jolts; the snarky satire aimed at the fecklessness of the South Korean government and the arrogance of U.S. power abroad; and the crafty writing, shooting and editing, packed with little surprises and fulfilling all the mandates of the monster movie form while refreshing them at the same time.

While I'm happy that Host is getting any attention stateside, I can't help but feel this is a missed opportunity. I don't (entirely) believe the condescending, self-serving assumption of our media-industrial complex (to borrow a phrase I learned from critic Jonathan Rosenbaum) that the American mass audience just doesn't like reading subtitles. Of course, there's strong resistance to "reading movies," and there are people you'll never convince to do it. But... well, Dances with Wolves, Life Is Beautiful, Crouching Tiger, Hero, The Passion of the Christ, those Klingon scenes from the Star Trek movies...

Anyway, The Host is just the latest Asian import that I feel, maybe naively, could and should have been a crossover success, if it had benefited from bolder and better distribution and marketing (other examples including Shaolin Soccer, the recent work of Hayao Miyazaki, and Infernal Affairs, although the latter sort of did in the form of The Departed). So fight the power... um, don't be another brick in the wall... uh, just go buy your ticket to The Host right now and strike a blow for the blockbuster we deserve.


A NOTE: I've admired the nifty Korean teaser poster reproduced above for a while and finally got it translated, courtesy of Kwangwoo over at the Mobius Home Video Forum's Asian Cinema discussion board. For what it's worth: "Dad! Save me!!" And at the bottom, "Family, Han River, and... MONSTER." (The movie's Korean title, Gwoemul, translates simply as Monster or Creature.)

The image itself is taken from my friend Grady Hendrix's unique and now sadly defunct Asian cinema blog, Kaiju Shakedown. Grady may not be posting anymore, but a couple years' worth of hilarious, informative and irreverent material is still there as of this writing, so do yourself a favor and check it out.

And for good measure, here is an interview with director/co-writer Bong Joon-ho, a neat guy.

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