Movie Review: Gwoemul (The Host)

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When a young girl is taken by a mutated river monster, her family fights to get her back.

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Joon Ho Bong, 2006

After a toxic chemical is spilled in the Han river, something monstrous grows in its depths. When it attacks people on a riverbank, it takes a 12-year-old girl named Hyun-Seo (Ah-sung Ko) right in front of her father Gang-Doo (Kang-ho Song). The family mourns her death, but the resourceful young Hyun-Seo uses a phone from a different victim to contact her father and tell him she’s alive. Gang-Doo, however, has his own problems: the government wants him in quarantine. It’s believed that the monster transmits a deadly virus to its victims, and the hapless Gang-Doo has been bled on by the creature. He enlists the help of his father, his smart but unemployed brother Nam-il (Hae-il Park), and his archer sister Nam-Joo (Doona Bae) to track down his missing daughter.

Gwoemul poster 04

The Host is a surprising movie in a lot of ways. Contrary to most creature features, we actually see the river monster early in the film. In fact, one of the most climactic moments happens early, and then we’re left waiting a long time for the finale. The attack on the riverbank is a particularly thrilling piece of cinema. If the film had maintained that level of excitement, The Host would have been a terrific monster movie. However, it really lags in the middle. There are a few scenes with some decent dramatic tension, and some of the exploration of the family dynamic works well. One scene where the family patriarch, a snack food vendor, explains Gang-Doo’s childhood and the reason for his intellectual disability is particularly good, especially when the monster appears at the end. The search just goes on for days, though, and the cuts back to the fantastic Hyun-Seo as she befriends another child and attempts to escape are far too rare.

The decision to show the monster throughout the movie rarely cheapens its impact when it’s on screen, although some of the special effects (particularly when water or fire is involved) don’t really hold up. The film gives us a good understanding of how the monster moves and works, though how Hyun-Seo survived in the first place is anyone’s guess. There is some decent acting here, especially from young Ah-sung Ko, who absolutely nails Hyun-Seo’s mix of fear and resilience. Watching her mud-streaked face as she figure out her next move is a delight. She’s supported well by the always-reliable Doona Bae, who brings a lot of pathos to the tough Nam-Joo, and Kang-ho Song, who keeps Gang-Doo from being a joke. That’s tough, given the level of physical humour and the number of pratfalls in the film. There’s apparently quite the satirical bite to the film that’s lost on Western audiences, and it has a number of references to South Korean events. Most of what comes across, though, is the fact that people are falling down, like, a lot. It really brings the vibe down. That might be a case of humour being lost in translation, but it makes some of the movie less enjoyable to watch. It’s a shame, because this movie could have been awesome.

Gwoemul (The Host) on IMDb

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