Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What's Cooler than Godzilla?

Film: Gwoemul (The Host)
Format: DVD from Lemont Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

It’s a cliché to think that all giant monsters come from Japan. They don’t. Gojira does, Mothra does, Gamera the flying turtle does, but there are other places in Asia that have their own giant monsters. For instance, from South Korea we get the mutant beast in Gwoemul.

There are some significant differences between this critter and the traditional guys in rubber suits stomping on models of Tokyo. For one thing, while Gamera was the friend of children and Godzilla had a certain pathos, the mutant here is a completely destructive force. It’s an eating machine to be feared, run away from, and hidden from. No one feels sorry for this monster, wants it to survive, or thinks it’s anything but terrifying. Another difference is that this creature is entirely a production of CGI rather than a guy in a giant suit.

Gwoemul is Korea’s entry into the “scary monster created by the foibles of Humanity” film genre, and it’s a damn good one. The monster is creative and interesting, terrifying and brutal. The movie itself is not strictly a horror movie, though. Much of the film is comedic intentionally, and a lot of the comedy works really well. Additionally, it’s a family drama as we deal with the various battles and infighting of the Park family.

We start in an American military base where an American official tells his Korean counterpart to dump the old dirty bottles of formaldehyde down the drain. As the shot pulls back, we discover that it’s not just a few bottles of bad formaldehyde but dozens, hundreds, all being poured directly into the Han River. We jump ahead a few years and see a pair of fishermen capture something tiny and horribly mutated in the river, but it escapes. We move ahead to 2006 when a suicide jumper notices something big swimming under the water before he dives in.

From here we focus on the Park family. Gang-Du (Kang-ho Song) is the failure of the family, a man who sleeps too much and doesn’t do much of anything well. As his father Hie-bong (Byun Hee-bong) explains, as a child, Gang-Du didn’t get enough protein in his diet and it affected him badly. The one thing he has done well in his life is have a daughter, Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung). Gang-Du’s sister Nam-Joo (Bae Doon-na) is an Olympic-level archer with the problem of taking too long to shoot. There’s also another brother, Nam-il (Hae-il Park), who is an unemployed alcoholic college graduate with a lot of resentment for the rest of his family.

One day, while Nam-Joo is competing, the huge mutated creature comes out of the depths of the Han River and attacks the people on the shore. This includes the Park family. Gang-Du, fulfilling his role as tragicomic relief tries to pull his daughter out of the path of the creature, but grabs the wrong child. Hyun-seo is evidently eaten by the monster before it dives back into the river.

Those who encountered the creature, particularly Gang-Du are quarantined that evening, but as Gang-Du looks for something to eat, his phone rings. It turns out that Hyun-seo was spat out by the monster in a sewer it is using as a lair. The girl is still alive, and the family breaks out of quarantine to locate and rescue her.

There’s a lot to love in this movie. For a starter, the creature itself is a wonder. Huge and menacing, it is truly a terrifying creation, and its mutation is especially interesting. Dwarfed, useless legs hang from its back for instance. It looks like a gigantic multi-legged tadpole with huge fangs, a completely original creation, and one that is fascinating to watch. It also looks great in most of the shots, like a real thing instead of an obvious CGI creation.

There are other wonderful additions as well. The dinner scene of the four family members hunting for Hyun-seo, for instance is extremely touching. Settling down to a hurried meal, Hyun-seo suddenly appears in their midst. No one says a word to her and she doesn’t speak, but everyone feeds her, strokes her hair and tends to her, a sort of group delusion. It’s as if the family wants to help the girl and comfort her so much that the all hallucinate her presence in their midst, or that by pretending to feed her, they can truly comfort her in her sewer. That this immediately flashes to a scene of the girl collecting rainwater in her hand makes it especially touching.

As with all movies worth their salt, Gwoemul is concerned with far more than just a kick-ass monster and the potential survival of the little girl in the sewer. While there are some truly disturbing scenes (the monster disgorging a seemingly endless supply of human bones from its gullet is my favorite), there’s much more here than gore and shock value. Gwoemul feels like it could be an environmental film, and certainly the creation of the monster makes that an obvious conclusion. But there’s far more, and the environmental message is all but ignored or left only as a cause of the initial problem rather than the point of the film.

What is far more important is the action of the governments of South Korea and the U.S. The quarantine is created because of a virus scare coming from the creature. It quickly becomes evident that there is no virus, and the government is trying to prevent panic and keep a lid on the problem of the creature. The government acts in appalling ways throughout the film, less to keep the citizenry safe and more to protect itself from the backlash of an angry and frightened population.

Gwoemul is a masterful film, moving from emotion to emotion at whipcrack pace and running roughshod over typical horror movie conventions. It is scary, touching, funny, and smart, a great film not just of its own genre, but any genre.

Why to watch Gwoemul: Funny, scary, touching, sweet and sad. And a kick-ass monster.
Why not to watch: You don’t like America being the bad guys.


  1. I can't believe nobody has commented yet! I saw it last night and loved it.

    I was thinking of writing a few paragraphs on why I have mixed feelings about more recent (the last ten years or so) movies on The List. I might as well put it here, I guess. I was planning on putting it on the comments for Inside Llewyn Davis (as an example of an iffy entry), but The Host is a very good choice for The List.

    I got the 2008 edition of 1001 Movies from the library and I was struck by how many of these movies that I've already seen are not really "must see." I saw Atonement (2007) when it first came out and I liked it OK. I was surprised when it got a number of Oscar nominations. It's not really "must see," and it makes me a little suspicious of some of these other recent entries.

    There are a lot of movies that are old (and some not-so-old) that I'm not really a huge fan of. But at least in those cases, decades have passed, and there's been some time to really assess these films and really see if they should be considered "must see."

    I've been looking at The List and trying to find a cut-off date for myself. A date where I can safely say "You know, I'm not too concerned about The List after this date." I'm finding the late 1990s to be pretty safe so far. There's a few unquestionable classics from that era - notably The Big Lebowski - and I'm having great success with the films from 1996 to 2001 that I've seen lately - Lone Star, Moulin Rouge!, Three Kings, Traffic.

    And moving a little further along, Kill Bill is one of my very favorite movies ever.

    So I had just about settled on 2004 to 2006 for my own cut-off date.

    But then I looked a little more closely at the films from more recent years and it looks like a pretty decent guide for recent films I haven't seen. I loved Cabin in the Woods (I saw it two weeks ago) but it's been recommended to me quite frequently quite independent of The List. And I saw Citizenfour a few days ago. Great movie! I probably wouldn't have seen it not for The List.

    I also saw The Theory of Everything, and I liked it OK. I can see why Eddie Redmayne won Best Actor, but I wasn't really blown away by it. Putting it on the 1001 Movies List means you have to take something off.

    And then there was Inside Llewyn Davis. I liked it OK. Carey Mulligan was great! A slight change of focus might have really rammed this movie through. But it's really a very minor effort from the Coen Brothers. If it gets dropped from future editions of 1001 Movies, then is it really must-see?

    So, like I said, I have mixed feelings about recent films on the list. I saw The Host last night, and I was already thinking that 2006 might be a good cut-off point because of Borat, Little Miss Sunshine and Pan's Labyrinth. (I'm not quite so sure about the Queen. I liked it all right. I was surprised at how much I liked it. Must-see? I dunno.)

    But The Host is great! Maybe it's just because I love how crazy Korean movies are. But I found The Host to be a delight from start to finish.

    Still ... I was looking at the premise for Four Lions. And I watched the trailer yesterday. Now I'm trying to find it somewhere, anywhere. And I never would have heard of it if not for 1001 Movies.

    Like I said, mixed feelings. Where's The Skin I Live In, Wreck-It Ralph, Seven Psychopaths, Tropic Thunder, 300, Grindhouse, Silver Linings Playbook, etc.?

    1. In terms of comments on this one, I wrote this review very early in my blogging days when I didn't have much of a readership and comments were pretty scarce. It happens. It also happens that I did a lot of movies I really like early on, which means that a lot of my favorites haven't gotten a lot of traffic.

      In terms of The List, I take it for what it is in a lot of respects. It's important to remember that "must-see" can come from a lot of different places, and it's not just the quality of the film itself. There are enough great movies out there that have never made this list that certainly could be put on it--I could see making a 2002 Movies list without that much difficulty. Okay, some difficulty, but I could probably come up with 250 movies worth enshrining in a day for one reason or another. There are plenty of great old horror movies, for instance--The List contains nothing from William Castle and not a single instance of Ray Harryhausen's work, just as quick examples.

      As it happens, I'm with you on Llewyn Davis, which I didn't love. I did, however, like The Queen a lot, and think it's worth it for Helen Mirren.

      Four Lions is great. Really, really, pitch black dark, but great.

      As for the more recent stuff...I agree on some of these (I'm still shocked that The Skin I Live In wasn't added), but others I'm less convinced of. 300 would only be worth it for the way it was filmed and the effects. As a movie, I think it's pretty drippy.

    2. No Ray Harryhausen and no William Castle is a CRIME!

      Also, no Esther Williams!

      Ridiculous. Take off Spellbound and put Million Dollar Mermaid in there.

      On one of those days where you don't write a review, you should consider an open thread for discussing the Great Crimes of The List. For example, no Meiko Kaji!

    3. I suggest 10 movies every year, traditionally on Christmas. The year before I started reviewing, I did it on New Year's Eve, I think, but otherwise, I've done this on Christmas or Christmas Eve every year, just to right a few wrongs.

      I figure suggesting a replacement 1% of the total each year is fair.