GWOEMUL (THE HOST)
Having already made their presence known on the global cinema map with films like Ji-woon Kim‘s Janghwa, Hongryeon (A Tale of Two Sisters) and Chan-wook Park‘s Oldboy, Korea now gives us Joon-ho Bong‘s Gwoemul (The Host), a rollicking creature feature that puts to shame a whole gaggle of Hollywood’s most recent offerings in the genre.
Following the most unlikely of celluloid heroes, the dysfunctional Park family (made up of patriarch Hie-bong, his offspring, deadbeat Gang-du, unemployed graduate Nam-il, competitive archer Nam-joo, and Gang-du’s daughter Hyun-seo), Gwoemul kicks off with a brief prologue six years in the past, as a perfunctory (possible) explanation for the creature’s existence, before kicking into high gear with the initial attack, which sets up the central event that serves as the engine the film’s narrative runs on.
Having the Parks as the film’s main protagonists effectively puts the lie to the Hollywood adage that creature features need heroes who are either scientists or soldiers to work. (During the initial attack, we in fact are introduced to US soldier Donald—played by David Joseph Anselmo—who can’t help but pitch in and piss off the rampaging monster; you just know where that’s gonna end up…)
And of course, for a great creature feature, you need a great creature, and Gwoemul has definitely got that. Done in CG by San Francisco-based The Orphanage*, Gwoemul’s beastie is convincing, particularly in the initial attack, in which the camera doesn’t really stand still, making the monster all the more real since it seems to be just another element in motion that just happened to be picked up by the lens, as opposed to some wide-angle Panavision shot displaying glorious SFX which blare, “Look at me! Look at me! I’m a CGI construct that cost an obscene amount of dollars to put on the screen! Look at meeee!”
There’s a certain stripped-down efficiency to Gwoemul that helps it tremendously, and even allows for some quiet little character moments amidst all the running about. And this, being a Korean movie, naturally displays moments of comedy (and with the Park family centerstage, there’s a fair amount of those to be had), though thankfully, the humor never devolves into goofy slapstick, as sometimes happens in Korean cinema. (Even Chan-wook Park‘s contribution to Saam gaang yi, “Cut,” had absolutely painful moments of crude humor that crippled an otherwise intense film experience.)
With just the right amount of suspense, humor, horror, and drama, Gwoemul is an entertaining 2 hour ride that is already being gobbled up by the Hollywood machine. (News has already broken of an impending English-language remake.) Despite some minor imperfections—notably a plot thread that doesn’t really go anywhere— Gwoemul is the best creature feature I’ve seen in quite some time. (Try and see it so you have a point of comparison once the glammed-up Hollywood version is unleashed upon us…)
* The Orphanage has worked on a whole slew of other films, including Superman Returns, the English-language remake of Pulse, and Hellboy, as well as the upcoming Grindhouse, and Fantastic Four and Pirates of the Caribbean sequels.
Parting shot: Interestingly enough, the next film of Kang-ho Song (who plays Gang-du) is Bakjwi, its English title, Evil Live, which is the title of the movie-within-the-(short)-movie in “Cut.” Bakjwi is being directed by Chan-wook Park, and has been described as a “modern-day vampire story” (as we saw in “Cut”).
Parting shot2: Du-na Bae (who plays Nam-joo) can also be seen as Eun-suh in Dong-bin Kim’s Ring Virus, the Korean remake of Ringu.
(Originally posted 012207)