THE HOST directed by Bong Joon-ho, with Song Kang-ho, Byeon Hie-bong and Park Hae-il. An Odeon release. 119 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (March 30). Rating: NNNN
Director Bong Joon-ho speaks almost no English, yet he has made the most Hollywood of films, a monster movie called The Host.
Bong Joon-ho is Korea’s Steven Spielberg.
And even in his rapid-fire delivery there are a few words that require no translation: John Carpenter, Silence Of The Lambs, M. Night Shyamalan. And a few others that, while understandable, seem to make no sense at all. Little Miss Sunshine, for example.
What could that Oscar-nominated familial road movie possibly have in common with Bong's exuberant ode to classic creature features like The Thing and Jaws?
"Yes, on a basic level this is a movie about a monster attacking Seoul, but really it's very much centred on this oddball family and how they cope with this situation," Bong explains through a translator. "And there is also a little girl who turns out to be the strongest member of the family."
If psycho-thriller filmmaker Park Chan-wook is Korea's Cronenberg, then Bong Joon-ho could well be that country's Spielberg, and The Host his Jaws.
It's already become the highest-grossing film in Korean history and the toast of Cannes and TIFF's Midnight Madness program. A stateside remake is in the works from Universal Pictures, once known for great monster movies like Frankenstein and The Creature From The Black Lagoon and lately producer of crap like The Mummy Returns and Van Helsing.
"It's probably safe there," is all Bong will say on the subject of the remake.
But where Spielberg was forced by necessity to keep his malfunctioning mechanical shark hidden for most of the movie, which only served to ratchet up the suspense because of what we couldn't see, Bong's man-eating CGI salamander emerges from the Han River at the 13-minute mark, in broad daylight, and begins snacking on Seoul food Godzilla-style.
Just as on-set the shark was nicknamed Bruce after Spielberg's lawyer, The Host's creature was called Steve Buscemi, not for its physical resemblance to the actor, but because its personality was similar to his slimeball hood character in Fargo.
"I didn't want to wait an hour to show you the creature's tail. I didn't want heroic characters like the army or scientists or policemen as lead characters, but this loser family instead," says Bong, whose last film, Memories Of Murder, broke similar conventions in the serial killer genre and has drawn comparisons to David Fincher's Zodiac.
At the same time, Bong admits that the monster's origin, the result of the U.S. military dumping toxic chemicals into the Han River, very much follows the conventions of the horror genre.
"The idea of the dumping is based on an actual event from a few years ago, so there's a historical basis," he says.
There's been no sign of 40-foot amphibians, though, he says.
"The conventions have been repeated to the point where they're extremely tired. They're law within the genre, so I have a love/hate relationship with them," Bong continues. "I think that inner conflict in myself comes out in my films."
As The Host enters North American theatres, Bong is already gearing up for his next movie, a "big sci-fi epic" based on the French comic The Snowland Train, about the last humans on earth escaping the new Ice Age. The premise alone is enough to make you wonder whether it'll turn out to be Bong's Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
THE HOST (Bong Joon-ho) Rating: NNNN
Monster movies are a dime a dozen, especially given the micro-budgets many of them have to work with, but The Host is an exception in every respect.
While a mutant monster climbing out of the Han River and munching on Seoul food might sound like another more famous Asian amphibian, this film is everything the steaming turd that was the Matthew Broderick Godzilla movie wasn't.
For one, the CGI creature looks spectacular, and director Bong Joon-ho daringly chooses to show all of it in full daylight. No lurking in dark shadows.
Even better, eschewing super-commandoes and attack helicopters, Bong makes a dysfunctional family the heroes of the story.
Sure, you could look for political commentary and social satire in the carnage and human drama, but why would you want to?