The Tadpole Who Ruled The World
It’s good fun to watch other countries go through the various stages of genre film, just as Hollywood did. This is even more true when the cinema dollar overseas is competing with Chinpokomon and other nefarious plots to rule the world.
Korea follows the U.S. cinema more closely than most. Even if it doesn’t do particularly well at seeing past the forest for the trees, its best practitioners have taken genre to new heights. The Host is the monster movie done better than any in the U.S., for it never abandons the element of surprise. The trend was memorably summarized by film critic Anthony Lane, whose appraisal of The Host we cite here.
Anthony Lane’s appreciation of the film, if a little gushy (who could sit through this film twice?) accurately pegged the film’s social points, and finds an American fear reflected.
Down by the River
by Anthony Lane
How come we get so many films about serial killers, teen-age libidos, and the Second World War, but nothing about giant mutant tadpoles? The imbalance has always struck me as unjust, and some of us have considered forming a pressure group to lobby for the inclusion of giant mutant tadpoles in mainstream cinema. Now the pressure is off, thanks to The Host. The director is Bong Joon-ho, and the mainstream in question is the Han, which flows through the center of Seoul. The rapid economic advance of South Korea in the nineteen-sixties and seventies is commonly known in the region as “the Miracle on the Han.” Here comes the downturn.
In the opening scene, a load of old formaldehyde, tipped down the drain by a lab technician, ends up in the waters of the Han. A few years later, we see the result, though we can’t quite make out what we are looking at: a dark, bulbous, comma-shaped form, drooping from the struts of a bridge. Slowly, it unfurls, like an Olympic diver, and drops neatly into the water. The good people of Seoul, amused by such novelty, toss beer cans at it and take snapshots on their cell phones. One of them glances sideways, at which point amusement comes to a halt—unlike the beast, which has hopped onto the embankment and is now pounding toward the crowd, plainly in search of a snack to go with the beer.
Reading from back to front, we find: a lashing tail, which also functions as a lasso; legs as thick as a dinosaur’s, with claws that can churn up concrete; eyes as dull as glue; and a mouth that seems to peel open in many directions at once. The whole package is the size of a Greyhound bus, and extremely vexed about something. It looks like Broderick Crawford crossed with a Venus flytrap.
Observing the monster is Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), a slob who runs a nearby food stand. He has yellow hair, the ability to fall asleep at any time, and—somewhat to our surprise—a young daughter, Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung). She gets caught up in the crowd’s chaotic flight from the monster, which promptly kidnaps her and, in obedience to the rules of fairy tale, bears her off to its lair. The rest of the film charts the efforts of Gang-du, aided by his family, to retrieve his only child from the dripping, bone-strewn sewer where she now resides.
No one can claim that we live in a golden age—or a bile-green, suppurating age—of movie monsters, and there will be plenty of filmgoers who yawned through Godzilla in 1998 and swore off large amphibians for good. All I can say, to tempt them back, is that I have seen The Host twice and have every intention of watching it again.
Anyone who has taken the plunge into recent Korean movies (Lady Vengeance and Oldboy, say) will know that their impact springs not just from the verve of the storytelling but from a tendency to hurtle energetically from one mood to the next, merrily swapping the lyrical for the sadistic. It is as if Korean directors, refusing to observe the niceties of genre, offered value for money by packing several movies into one. The trick with The Host, the most successful release in the history of Korean cinema, is therefore to unpack it and inspect the contents.
The first component is shock, without which no monster movie can hope to thrive. The Host delivers a fine series of jolts, as the beast, which uses the industrial architecture of Seoul as an acrobat uses the parallel bars, swings suddenly out of the darkness.
More unorthodox is the visual gag near the beginning, when Gang-du, fleeing the rampage, takes hold of his daughter’s hand, then loses it in the rush. The screen slows and turns quiet; his hand gropes for hers and finds it again, at which point we pull back to reveal that he has grabbed the wrong girl. This is typical of Bong Joon-ho: the setting may be outlandish, but the emotion—every parent’s fear—could hardly be more rooted in the real.
Second, there is the yuck factor. The Host is not especially bloody, and it will hold limited appeal for those macho viewers who like to test and prove themselves by cackling through a film like Hostel, which was little better than a dramatized abattoir. Nonetheless, the special effects have an insidious slither of their own. They were created by the Orphanage, the California company that worked on Hellboy, Sin City, and recent installments of Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean. What the wizards have conjured for The Host, though, takes me back to the heyday of John Carpenter—specifically, to the flowering nastiness of The Thing.
When the girl’s family is held in a hospital, following rumors that the beast may be the source—the host—of a menacing virus, we get a delicate probing of the generational split. Gang-du’s father is all for mollifying the doctors, trying to slip them a sweetener in cash, whereas the son wants to muscle his way out as fast as possible. This niggle of disrespect lends the film a nervous litheness; we want the monster quelled, and order restored, but what, exactly, is so peaceful about the status quo?
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All of which leads to the director’s most unlikely virtue: he makes you laugh. Moreover, he keeps doing so in the wrong—or, at any rate, the least laughable—places. This was demonstrated in his earlier movie Memories of Murder , in which detectives and forensic experts arriving to study a corpse kept slipping on an embankment and landing on their behinds, like extras in a Mack Sennett comedy. Many graceful directors—Jacques Tati, obviously, but also Krzysztof Kieslowski—have been drawn to the sheer gracelessness of humanity, as if there were something endearing in our habit of falling (or tumbling) short of that noble dignity which, when sitting comfortably, we like to ascribe to ourselves.
The most destabilizing scene in The Host comes as Gang-du and the others wail with grief before a photograph of Hyun-seo, whom they believe to be dead, and make such a spectacle of themselves, writhing like eels, that despite ourselves we snicker at their collapse. Such maladroit behavior is unusual in a monster flick, where you expect at least a modicum of cool; you can’t really imagine Sigourney Weaver, at the climax of Aliens, tripping over her own flamethrower.
Given all that, it may seem perverse to hail The Host as a thing of beauty, yet that is what it is: a perfect mixture of the silly and the grave. In 1954, the art critic David Sylvester, impatient with the accepted canon, wrote a review of Them!, in Encounter, in which he described it as “a frightening, imaginative, beautifully written B-movie-style SF film about giant ants, exactly the sort of film the professional critics could be guaranteed not to latch on to.” Time to make amends. We have shifted from ants to tadpoles (The Host could easily have been titled “It!”), but the style is intact.
Take the gorgeous wide shot of the Han River, early in the film, with rain gusting across the surface and a hint of something more than murky stirring in its depths. Then leapfrog to the last scene: we are back at Gang-du’s food stand, after dark, with adult and child sharing a heaped table of food. On the television, there is news about the beast—a report, voiced by American officials, about the unseemly events in Seoul.
The feasters in the shack, who, after all, were principal players in that drama, want nothing more to do with it: “Should we watch something else?” “Let’s turn it off. Concentrate on eating.” The whole flustered panoply of TV, camera crews, and cell phones that has flashed and clicked throughout the movie is turned off, making way for a glimpse of an older, more peaceable Korea.
We move outside for a closing image worthy of Fellini: the small hut, so light and festive within, warmed by the steam of rice, is marooned in a landscape of night and drifting snow. Anything could be out there.
BONNIE AND CLYDE
“La Horse” – Serge Gainsbourg (mp3)
“La Horse Bonus Beats” – Serge Gainsbourg (mp3)
“L’Alouette” – Serge Gainsbourg (mp3)
Bong’s follow-up set in an Ice Age looks sweet.
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Hills like white quarterbacks.
Maybe it’s on your computer.
more birkin here