The Host / Gwoemul (dir. Bong Joon-ho, 2006) – A family of four will do anything to rescue their youngest, from the monster that has risen from the depths of Han River.
Far exceeding the purpose of monstrous chaos, the creature feature finds heart in a moving story of a dysfunctional family’s last shot at redemption.
Eco-degradation has serious consequences. The Host personifies the danger into a living creature, whose mutation had resulted from chemical toxins that were irresponsibly dumped into Seoul’s Han River. With no purpose beyond destruction, the monster ravages the city and stores its human prey for food. Among its kidnapped victims is Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung), whose family would do anything to get her back.
As with how the World War’s nuclear anxieties had birthed Gojira back in 1954, the inspiration behind Gwoemul is also found in a real-world incident. In 2002, a South Korean employee of the U.S. military poured 20 gallons of formaldehyde into the same river, leading to anti-American protests by various environmentalist groups.
With its literal monster that also led onto demonstrations, The Host clearly satirises the scandal. But the social critique is outshone by the familial drama at its heart. The monster’s victim has a loving family, if dysfunctional amongst its adult relations. Her father Park Gang-doo (Song Kang-ho) is despised for his underachieving demeanour and ineptitude in his work, even if he does his best in fatherhood.
His estranged siblings Nam-Il (Park Hae-Il) and Nam-Joo (Bae Doo-na) make the animosity clear. Only Hee-Bong (Byun Hee-Bong) stands by his son, having seen his pains and earnestness, where the others could not. It is only when young Hyun-seo vanishes that all four are forced to understand each other, and reconcile for the dangerous rescue.
Superb characterisation easily draws emotional connection to the accidental heroes. Their sometimes vexatious flaws humanise them as genuine, and imperfect but with good intentions. Having the monster always at close quarters also sustains discernible peril, though true menace is often human in nature too.
Determined to keep the true origins of the toxins secret, the South Korean government has purported the monster as a host of a fatal virus, so that they may put witnesses in quarantine. The Park family then becomes the target of the Government for not following the quarantine orders and suspecting the official word.
They were right, of course. The spread of paranoia is nothing but a distraction to quell questions. But apathy towards eco-damage allows this easy untruth to spread, protecting politicians to the detriment of the citizenry.
Bureaucracy takes a hit in this layered tale, concerned with more than simply evoking dread. By finding a humane arc in what had begun as a creature feature, The Host assaults with surprisingly sharp purpose and relevance, leaving a powerful dent in its wake.