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 : The Wailing / 곡성 (2016)

The Wailing, written and directed by Na-Hong Jin, was released in 2016. It was screened at the Cannes Festival the same year, out of competition, which helped the film gain interest from the public out of its country of origin.

Mysterious and gruesome murders take place in a peaceful, rural village. Jong-Goo, a family man and somewhat incompetent police officer, hears a growing rumor in the village, blaming a strange Japanese hermit for the violent deaths. Jong-Goo confronts the Japanese man but when his daughter starts showing the same symptoms as the victims prior to their demise, he has no choice but to call a shaman for help.

Trying to explain The Wailing is a very tedious task as it is a strange film, from its story to its narrative. This is a film which requires several viewings to grasp its entire scope. I did enjoy the film upon my first viewing but it left me confused and with a lot of questions. Unlike most thrillers, the more clues are discovered, the more confused you become. At times, I found The Wailing too strange for its own good. The film is also way too long and it hurts the pace. ; it could easily have been shortened by at least thirty minutes. The narrative is sometimes confusing and I found some parts of the film difficult to follow, especially in the first act. The tone changes rather quickly. There are humorous elements in the beginning but the film then becomes an intense horror drama.

The cinematography is especially beautiful and the performances are great. I especially appreciate how the director never shows the crimes being committed. We only get to witness the violent aftermath, rendering us as helpless as the main characters. The highlight of the film is, by far, the ceremony / invocation sequence : it is an editing masterpiece. Two characters are performing two different ceremonies which are edited together to deceive the viewer into misunderstanding a particular character’s role.

The Wailing is a dark, vicious tale which shows people’s inability to distinguish good from evil in the grimmest and strangest way. Hard to follow at times due to the wide range of spiritual references, from shamans to Christianity, The Wailing is not a film you watch, it is a film you experience. Though a shorter version would have been better, The Wailing will haunt you long after the credits roll.

Review : I Saw The Devil / 악마를 보았다 (2010)

Directed by Kim Jee-Woon and released in 2010, I Saw The Devil is an intense revenge story which doesn’t follow the conventional path of the genre.

On a freezing, snowy night, a young woman, daughter of a retired police chief and pregnant fiancée of elite special agent Soo-hyun, is brutally murdered by a psychopath. Obsessed with revenge, Soo-hyun decides to track down the murderer, even if doing so means becoming a monster himself. And when he finds Kyung-chul, turning him in to the authorities is the last thing on his mind.

What strikes you first with this film is the elaborate camera work. From the choice of angles to perfectly framed shots, there are numerous mesmerizing scenes which contrast with the brutality of what is happening on screen thus emphasizing the absurdity of the characters’ actions. The beauty of the scenes depicting gruesome murders is also a clever way of provoking repulsion and terror.

The violence is raw and realistic which renders the film more terrifying than any over-the-top gorefest. The sound of the weapons hitting the victims is especially unbearable. Kim Jee-Won is a master at showing horror in the most unsettling way imaginable.

The title of the film refers more to the main character than the villain (who is nothing more than a twisted, perverted, gross psychopath). His thirst for revenge leads him on a dark path, making the devil inside emerge. I Saw The Devil brilliantly shows the purposelessness of revenge as our main character leaves a trail of collateral damage and loses his moral compass as he avenges his lost love. Lee Byun-Hung’s performance is intense and very subtle as he has only a few lines but still conveys so much emotion and internal struggle.

However, I found one element of the film to be rather unnecessary as it doesn’t add anything to the plot. The killer already appears as a gruesome monster with no humanity so adding another sub-plot didn’t work in the favor of the story. Furthermore, the film is a bit too long, with a running time of 140+ minutes. It drags in the middle but the rhythm picks up again in the third act for the most intense 45 minutes of footage I have seen in a long time. This sequence had me glued to the screen, my body tensed and my mind 100% immersed in the film.

I Saw The Devil is not for the faint of heart. Full of tension and suspense, its extreme violence is never pointless and always serves the story. This film should be recommended to any horror enthusiast who wants an original revenge story with beautiful cinematography.

Review : Train To Busan / 부산행 (2016)

Train To Busan is a Korean horror film directed by Yeon Sang-Ho and released in the summer of 2016. It hit the world by surprise and its success reached far beyond Korean borders.

Seok-Woo is a fund manager in Seoul. Separated from his wife, he lives with his mother and daughter Soo-An. Seok-Woo is a workhaolic who doesn’t pay uch attention to his daughter. For her birthday, Soo-An asks to go see her mother in Busan. Seok-Woo has no other choice but to accompany her from Seoul to Busan. As they board the train, an infection spreads like wildfire turning the passengers into flesh-hungry zombies. They, along with a group of survivors, must fight for their lives, as Seok-Woo comes to realize what matters the most in life.

Train To Busan is a breath of fresh air in a genre that has become a low-budget farce. The attention given to crafting the excellent action scenes does not deprive the film of a fundamental aspect : character development. While a bit stereotypical, the main characters are worth caring about. Seok-Woo is entirely focused on his career and  emotionally neglects his daughter, believing that providing for her and buying her expensive gifts is enough. However, while an evidently flawed character, he is depicted in such a balanced way that he doesn’t come across as a bad father. He is just a confused parent who doesn’t understand what his child needs most (his attention, not his wealth). The other father of the film (a passenger travelling with his pregnant wife) is also a loveable character and the complete opposite of Seok-Woo thus creating interesting interactions between the two.

The performances are stellar, from the main cast to the extras. Gong Yoo carries the film and gives a touching performance. Soo-An Kim is also impressive, especially given her young age. She is never overracting as it is often the case with child actors. Her interations with Gong Yoo made them absolutely believable as father and daughter. The extras portraying the zombies don’t go unnoticed either. They are ferocious and their body contorsions increase their scary nature. They’re among the best zombies I have seen on screen in a long time.

The majority of the film takes place on the train (with a few scenes in train stations). This location could have presented limitations for the action sequences but Yeon Sang-Ho cleverly uses every inch of the train to deliver complex, intense and well-constructed action scenes. One of the most impressive scenes consists in Seok-Woo, Sang-Hwa and Yong-Guk (the young baseball player) making their way through zombie-infected train cars to reunite with their loved ones. The scene brilliantly balances exciting action and breath-holding thrills. All the action scenes are excellent, thrilling and intense and the third act really shines in its scope, delivering epic sequences.

The social commentary effectively enhances the message of the film but is slightly too manichaean. There is no grey area and the film portrays the rich and powerful as corrupt and only achieving a high level of success by crushing others. The best example is the hateful CEO (designed for one purpose only : being hated) who has no redeeming qualities, is selfish and evil and spends the film endangering others.

Our main character, however, is the one who goes on a moral journey. By the third act, he finally understands what matters most and watching him evolve throughout the film is very endearing.

Finally, I disagree with the critics who claimed some plot elements are purely tear-jerking tools and manipulative drama. On the contrary, I found those scenes not only well-balanced but also necessary to highlight the tragedy of what is happening.

From the opening sequence to the end credits, your eyes will be glued to the screen. Train To Busan modernized a saturated genre and might just be the best zombie film of the past ten years !