Review : The Host / 괴물 (2006)

The Host was directed by the talented Bong Joong-Ho and released in 2006. Bong Joong-Ho wrote the script of The Host during the filming of Memories of Murder.

The Host is about a monster living in the Han river in Seoul (created by the disposal of dangerous chemicals into the river). Our main character is Park Gang-du, a simple-minded man who runs a snack-bar near the river, with his father. Park Gang-du also has a daughter, Hyun-seo, and two siblings who he is not very close with. The monster emerges from the river, destroys everything in its path while killing people and abducting others. When Hyun-seo is taken by the creature, her family does everything in their power to find her and bring her home.

The Host is not a simple creature feature. Instead, it is both a family drama and a social commentary on governments (not specifically about Korea as I fear this applies anywhere). This is what I enjoyed the most about The Host : it is more than meets the eyes. The creature has an elaborate design but unfortunately, the CGI doesn’t look good. Surprisingly, the creature is not the focus of the film (and with the low CGI quality, it is indeed a good thing).

The family we follow throughout the film is dysfunctional : they are poor, the older son is unemployed, the sister is a failed athlete and the main character, Park Gang-du is described as having a mental disability due to childhood events. Watching the members of this family become a true unit in the midst of tragedy is moving. It is when they lose what is the most important thing in the world (Park Gang-du’s young daughter) that they all realize that they must come together and fight. It is also a bit sad whenever people have to go through tragic events to realize that nothing is more important than family. Their journey to this realization is not done in a typical drama fashion. As expected from such a great director, the emotion is well balanced and feels real.

However, I had an issue with the tone which lasted for the majority of the film : the humor is grotesque and feels forced. We have characters falling down for the sake of looking stupid, some lines meant to be funny but seem forced and actors who are often overreacting. I think the humor was not necessary and actually hurt the story a bit.

The Host is not about a family fighting a monster. Instead, they are fighting the government who is more threatening and dangerous than the creature itself. First off, it is incredible (but not far fetched) that the government, via the military with heavy weaponry, is unable to kill a creature who isn’t bigger than a whale. Rather than being unable to, the authorities seem unwilling to. Also, while trying to save Hyun-seo, her father, uncle and aunt find themselves having to run from government scientists and the military. Bong Joong-Ho succeeds in showcasing governments’ inaction and willingness to put citizens in danger to serve their own needs in times of crisis.

While the survival of Hyun-seo was a bit unbelievable, The Host is an enjoyable (and most of all, smart) creature feature who focuses on its characters. I didn’t like The Host nearly as much as Memories of Murder, though it is well-directed. While it is a good film, it belongs in the “mainstream entertainment” category, as far as I’m concerned. 

 

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Review : Memories of Murder / 살인의 추억 (2003)

Memories of Murder was directed by Bong Joong-Ho and released in 2003. The film is based on a true story that occurred between 1986 and 1991 in the Gyeonggi province. Ten women were raped and murdered in a 2km radius. The culprit has never been found. Memories of Murder is often considered to be the film which started a new wave in Korean cinema.

The film begins in 1986, the body of a young woman is found. She has been raped and murders. A couple of months later, similar crimes occurr and a pattern emerges : the killer strikes on rainy nights and is at first targeting women wearing red clothing. Two local detectives, Park Doo-Man and Jo Young-Go, are in charge of the investigation. Their violent and questionable methods, coupled with a good degree of incompetence, prevents them from finding concrete evidence that could help getting closer to the killer. They are joined by Seo Tae-Yoon, a police officer from Seoul who recently transferred. The film follows the trio during their investigations from 1986 to 1991.

I am new into the world of Korean cinema and so far, with each film I have watched, I am mesmerized by the beautiful cinematography that only Korean directors seem to be able to capture. Bong Joong-Ho uses a lot of long shots, the camera switching from character to character in one unique shot. The film is extremely well directed and shot.  Though the film takes place in one village, Bong Joong-Ho offers a wide variety of locations, which are clearly chosen carefully.

The performances are excellent, from the main characters to the extras. The casting director did an excellent job choosing people with memorable faces or features, even for small roles. Every single person you see on screen stays on your mind. The three main characters are all great and interesting in their own way. I especially loved to witness how their relations evolved during the course of the investigation.

Another thing Bong Joong-Ho did beautifully : mixing the tones. The film has humor, especially in the first act. The two local cops and some of the suspects are funny and some scenes are really comedic. But the tone gets darker and darker as the story unfolds. Yet, neither the humor nor the tragedy feel out of place or forced. I usually complain when films switch tones too drastically or too frequently but here, it reaches perfection.

The film is also a time capsule, depicting life in rural Korea in the 1980’s. I don’t know Korean history enough to properly analyze the context of the film, so I will not do it injustice by attempting it. Memories of Murder is perfectly directed, the acting is superb, the visuals are beautiful and the ending is both beautiful and tragic. I cannot recommend it enough. Please watch this masterpiece !

 

Review : Ju-On (The Grudge) / 呪怨 (2002)

Ju-On : The Grudge was directed by Takashi Shimizu and released in 2002. The film is part of the Ju-On franchise which consists in 12 feature films (9 japanese productions and 3 american ones). Ju-On is based on Japanese folklore and more specifically on the Kayako urban legend about a woman murdered by her husband who comes back as a vengeful ghost.

Volunteer social worker Rika stumbles across the curse when she finds an almost catatonic old woman in a shambles of a home, a spooky little boy with a froggy voice and a veritable black hole of a phantom that seems to be sucking the life from the old lady. The story then jumps back and forth along the timeline in a series of chapters named for the characters haunted and hunted by the unsettled souls. (source : Wiki Asia)

Ju-On takes the concept of a haunted house to a whole new level. As in many Japanese horror films, what stands out the most is the creepy and unsettling atmosphere. It is well-directed and every ghost apparition is shot in the most frightening way possible. The pacing is slow but it works much better than Ringu, in my opinion. The slow rhythm of the film only increases the fear in anticipation of what’s coming next. I thought it never disappointed. The scenes which were meant to scare…frightened me beyond belief ! You won’t look at staircases or beds the same way after watching Ju-On.

The story is told in chapters, each one focusing on different characters. This is a minor flaw as I found it sometimes difficult to sympathize with characters you know you’re not going to spend too much time with. The storytelling is overall a bit chaotic.

The most important part of Ju-On is, of course, the ghosts. Their “design” is so simple that it is genius. They are just people with white make-up on. But Shimizu focuses on one element, which alone constitutes the scariest feature of the ghosts : the eyes. Oh, those eyes ! Oh, the horror ! I still get chills just thinking about them. Every single scare is accompanied by effective sounds which will make your skin crawl.

Though the structure of the film is all over the place, Ju-On is a fantastic film. It is, along with Ringu, a great entry to discover J-Horror. I highly recommend it.