Parasite is a perfect film and one of the most deserved Academy Award winners of recent years, but what it brought up for me was how much that the films of Bong Joon-ho are a cinematic blind spot of mine.
Barking Dogs Never Bite, Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother, Snowpiercer and Okja have been met with acclaim from many critics and viewers, but somehow, they’ve passed me by even though I was very much aware of their existence.
Of course, Snowpiercer had a particularly tough time on release, especially in the UK where the film wasn’t released in cinemas or Blu-Ray, eventually making its way to Netflix and other streaming services in 2018 and will only be making its debut on British Blu-Ray this May.
What has also become hard to miss over the past few years has been the influx of Korean culture, from K-pop becoming a massively popular genre of music thanks to the success of BTS, to the influx of K-dramas available to stream on Netflix. There are so many to choose from, but if you were to pick anything of the latter then the recent smash hits Crash Landing on You and Itaewon Class are well worth watching.
What is very apparent from having seen Parasite and how K-drama writers structure their television shows, is how they love to mix and match tones and genres as well as write things in an intricate way that is vastly different to how American scriptwriters approach their stories.
Emblazoned on the UK DVD and Blu-Ray release of The Host was ‘Jaws meets Jurassic Park’ which isn’t really the type of movie The Host is. Sure, there is a monster here, and several large-scale set-pieces involving a creature on the rampage, but it never becomes the film you would expect it to be. It becomes something so much better.
A blockbuster smash in South Korea in 2006, and deservedly gaining critical acclaim internationally, if The Host was a Hollywood production, it would have played out exactly as you would have expected to; no doubt the cast of characters would have been professional types like computer hackers, scientists and members of the military, maybe some of whom would have had a quirky edge, while scenes of mass destruction would have been pouring out of every inch of the frame and thrown into every set-piece.
Bong Joon-ho has a different drive in mind for The Host. The film opens with a prologue involving the creation of the monster with the indiscriminate dumping of a large quantity of formaldehyde down a drain that leads to the Han River. That an American military pathologist is the one involved in this decision is something I’ll come back to a moment, but the film then introduces its lead character, Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho, a regular in Director Bong’s productions) who gets caught up in the middle of an attack near the Han River in a sustained set-piece that is quite frankly incredible.
His daughter is caught up in it, and when he goes to grab her to take her away from the chaos, he finds that he has grabbed the hand of the wrong child. It’s a moment that sets a tone for the story and the characters from that moment on.
Where so many monster movies focus on a cool group of tech savvy characters saving New York or Tokyo, the characters in The Host are wonderfully clumsy and prone to making terrible, costly mistakes. Park Gang-du is a loser of a character, the type of which that would be played by a Seth Rogen-type in a Hollywood film, but Bong Joon-ho puts a character like this front and centre, and lets the chaos play out.
Released in 2006, the film made its debut during the second term of George W. Bush as President of the United States and with it the War on Terror and a generation that came to resent Bush’s style of American Republicanism and decisions to start wars in the Middle East under the auspices of protecting lives but which was seemingly driven by a need for oil, instead causing more chaos and danger to the world.
There is a wonderful cynicism throughout The Host at the involvement of the US military. The War on Terror is an obvious target, as is the involvement of the US in various parts of Korean life, with the news headlines dotted throughout the film making more of a bigger deal of the life of a single American soldier during the first attack as opposed to the hundreds of Koreans being affected.
While the film is one from fourteen years ago and has satirical targets in its sight, the film still plays presciently today. The digs at US military foreign policy still sting hard in a humorous way, but the film also deals with a large city dealing with the fall out of a monster attack and the news spreading that the creature had a disease, thus leading to large quarantine measures in the area. We see extras wearing masks, a paranoid belief amongst many at the possibility of disease and a scarily hilarious moment involving an impromptu sneeze.
Watching the film when the entire world is in grips of a quarantine period and an impromptu sneeze has a genuine threat to it, The Host makes for uncomfortably brilliant viewing even in 2020. That it is also thrilling, as well as a genuinely unpredictable experience, makes it a brilliant watch, regardless of the year you watch it.
The Host is available to stream on Hulu in the US and to buy or rent on Google Play and Amazon Video in the UK.