Gwoemul -- The Host

In the final scenes of Terry Pratchett's Moving Pictures, new Discworld movie moghuls CMOT Dibbler and nephew Soll watch a huge image of a woman (a 50 foot image, to be exact) carry the Librarian (who is an orangutan) up a tower. As they watch the giant woman carrying the ape, they both remark worriedly to each other that for all its spectacular value, something was not quite right about what they were watching.

I've had similiar feelings about most monster movies. It has been difficult to decide which one is a worthier candidate to despise, Jaws , Godzilla, Jurassic Park or that intriguing turkey of a movie, Anaconda. Therefore, I have largely contented myself by not watching them. (King Kong is different because it taps into a bestial, sexual vein in its loopy way).
Last night, quite by accident, I found myself 20 minutes into a monster movie before I had realised it was one. Gwoemul (The Host) is a Korean movie which elegantly lets you know that Hollywood should shut shop and find other pursuits. Gardening, perhaps.

In Gwoemul a mortician in a US Army base in Seoul is ordered to pour toxic chemicals into the Han river. A few years later, fishermen spot it. Later, an acerbic suicide spots it in the river moments before he jumps in. A while later, the monster, inevitably, attacks. Simple-minded, lazy Gang-du is caught up in the attack and his little daughter is one of the people the beast carries away and is seen eating. Seoul is whipped into a panic by the US and by the media about a virus that the monster carries. Since Gang-du had come in contact with the monster he and his family are quarantined. While in quarantine, Gang-du gets a call - from his daughter. For the rest of the movie, Gang-du, his father and siblings try to get the little girl back.

works on many counts. The beast (large, though not Kong-size) conveys both bestial agility and a degree of intelligence that makes it quite possible for you to scream without embarrassment. And no matter how much airtime the beast gets (quite a lot, and in daylight) you rarely have a moment to register that it looks preposterous or even think cynical thoughts about special effects. Too much is happening on screen for any of that. Gwoemul has the basic monster plot and a fabulous, eccentric narrative. Important, interesting, well-developed characters (people you root for fiercely) die, so you wll have actual reason to panic and even weep, rather than wince. And as if this wasn't enough. Joon-ho Bong, the director also displays a deft hand at introducing a great background score, at pure black comedy and at enough US-baiting for North Korea to give an unprecedented stamp of Commie approval to this, the highest-grossing South Korean movie ever. Bong has thoroughly enjoyed himself making this film. Look at the eyes of the American doctor who comes to talk to Gang-du in the last half-hour of the movie and you will know what I mean.


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