Gwoemul (The Host)

Rating 4

Directed by Bong Joon-ho

Written by Bong Joon-ho, Baek Chul-hyun and Ha Wong-jun

Starring Song Kang-ho (Park Gang-du), Byeon Hee-bong (Park Hee-bong), Park Hae-il (Park Nam-il), Bae Du-na (Park Nam-joo) and Ko Ah-sung (Park Hyun-seo)

Park Gang-du runs a snack bar with his father Hee-bong. He spends most of his time sleeping and gives every impression of being rather slow-witted and shiftless. When a huge amphibian creature emerges out of the Han River, attacking the many bystanders who witness the event, and makes off back into the water with his young daughter Hyun-seo, he becomes intent on rescuing her, aided by his father, his brother Nam-il, an alcoholic university graduate, and his sister Nam-joo, a medal-winning archer. His quest is hampered by the authorities, who do not believe his daughter is still alive and who claim he has been infected by a virus they say has been unleashed by the creature.

‘Gwoemul’ (or ‘The Host’, to give the film its English title), a South Korean production, broke all existing domestic box office records when it was released in 2006, becoming the biggest grossing South Korean film of all time. It’s a mixture of monster movie, black comedy with outbreaks of slapstick humour, human drama, and political and environmental statement. These seemingly disparate elements combine to create a bizarre, intriguing, thought-provoking, enjoyable and often heartrending film that bears many of the hallmarks of the famous 1954 Japanese monster movie ‘Godzilla’ (‘Gojira’).

The film is critical of American military presence in South Korea and of the influence of American foreign policy in the region generally, although it also depicts an un-named American character performing an act of genuine unselfish heroism that costs him his life. Equally, it can be viewed as a satire on the South Korean government, with the authorities portrayed as both bureaucratic and incompetent.

In essence, this is a story about an unremarkable individual who suddenly finds himself in an extraordinary situation. He is already written off as someone of little worth; when the father asks his other son and daughter, “In your view, is Gang-du really so pathetic?”, they both reply yes. However, he remains unyielding in his attempts to find his daughter, helped by his family, and the true spirit of these four people, battling in the face of seemingly impossible odds, is brought into sharp focus.

The film is rather muddled in parts and many holes could be found in the narrative if so desired, but this is such an enjoyable and kind spirited film that they deserve to be overlooked.

‘Gwoemul’ has a 92% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes from 138 reviews. It had a production budget of $11 million (quoted at Wikipedia) and grossed a little over $89.4 million at the box office worldwide.

The film is based in part on a true event that occurred in 2000 when a large quantity of formaldehyde being stored on a US military base in Seoul was dumped into a sewer system leading to the Han River. The South Korean government attempted to pursue a prosecution of the civilian employee responsible, but the US military refused to hand him over to Korean authorities, leading to considerable criticism of the impotence of the government in the face of American political might. A prosecution did finally take place in 2005 with a guilty verdict passed, but no custodial sentence.

Review posted 16 April 2009

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