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Careless American military personnel dump chemicals into South Korea's Han River. Several years later, a creature emerges from the tainted waters and sinks its ravenous jaws into local residents. It abducts Hyun-seo (A-sung Ko) the daughter of Kang-du (Kang-ho Song), who works at a food-stand on the banks of the river. The government announces that the monstrous thing is the Host of an unidentified virus. Having feared the worst, Kang-du receives a phone call from his daughter who is frightened, but very much alive. Kang-du soon makes plans to infiltrate the forbidden zone near the Han River to rescue his daughter.
For more about The Host and the The Host Blu-ray release, see the The Host Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on July 29, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writers: Bong Joon-ho, Baek Chul-hyun, Won-jun Ha
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Byun Hee-bong, Bae Doona, Ah-sung Ko, Hae-il Park
» See full cast & crew
The Host Blu-ray Review
"Old people have always said that an animal which kills a human should be torn limb from limb, that it's a human's duty to do so."
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, July 29, 2009
The creature feature has been in steady decline since its b-movie heyday, when rubber-suited monstrosities stomped through cardboard cities, terrorizing hapless citizens and the movie-going public alike. The genre has seen a slight resurgence, however, with Cloverfield and The Host both bringing aquatic beasties back to the silver screen. Despite the surface similarities, the two films couldn't be more different. With its yuppies-on-the-run style plot, Cloverfield is an exciting, albeit strait-forward ride that unfortunately features flat characters strait out of a beer commercial—rich, trendy urbanites with cash to blow and style to spare. The Host is a far humbler affair, both budget-wise and in regard to the movie's lower middle class protagonists, and I feel it's the better of the two films. The characters are relatable, the monster has more personality, and The Host manages to be funny, frightening, tender and socially pointed. Director Bong Joon-ho has crafted a clever genre-bender that is not quite "on a par with Jaws," as Harry Knowles' cover blurb claims, but is certainly a unique take on the often- predictable monster movie.
Part of the film's inspiration is the real-life "McFarland" incident, when an American military doctor in the year 2000 ordered a South Korean subordinate to dump large quantities of formaldehyde down a drain and, inevitably, into the Han river. The film opens with an only slightly fictionalized version of this event, and jumps forward six years to the misfit Park family, who own a snack shop on the bank of the Han. Park Hee-bong (Byeon Hee-bong) is the clan's patriarch, a widower with three adult children—daughter Nam-joo (Bae Doona), a competitive archer, son Nam-il (Park Hae-Il), a former activist and unemployed college grad, and son Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), a lazy and oafish single-parent who tends the shop with his father. Gang-du spots the mutated monster hanging from a nearby bridge, and when bystanders start chucking snacks into the river to entice it, the creature goes on an on-shore rampage, killing several and dragging Gang-du's daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seong) back to its lair in Seoul's labyrinthine sewers. While trying to rescue the girl, the family must not only fight the monster, but also deal with the unhelpful Korean government and face the ineptitude of the U.S. military, which bungles the situation in just about every way possible.
The film works not because of jump-scare tactics or CGI spectacle, but because the characters are so well drawn and the actors give their roles a perfect balance of real, empathetic emotion and tongue-in-cheek melodrama. This is a funny film, but the humor, rather than being a distraction, comes across as an organic extension of the characters' relationships. Their interactions are alternately honest and smart-assed, and the siblings' jabs at one another will be instantly familiar to anyone with a brother or sister. Song Kang-ho (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) is particularly effective as Gang-du, the monster-napped girl's bumbling father. He has comic foibles a-plenty, but his love for his daughter is painfully evident, and his transformational arc from do- nothing dad to responsible parent is the story's emotional backbone. That Bong Joon-ho uses a dysfunctional family to fight his beast—not a cadre of soldiers or scientists—is refreshing, and differentiates The Host from any number of monsters-amok genre films.
Of course, a creature feature is nothing without a convincing monster, and the titular host—so named because the U.S. government suspects it carries a deadly virus—is one of the more original fiends in recent years. A chemically mutated, fish and amphibian hybrid, the creature sports a long, aquiline tail and a labial mouth that wouldn't look out of place in a Georgia O'Keefe painting. San Francisco's The Orphanage, the visual effects team that animated the monster, gives the CGI beast a believable presence. As it traverses land and water and uses its prehensile tail to flip acrobatically from the support beams under bridges, the host definitely carries a realistic sense of heft. And while I wouldn't go so far as to say the monster has intelligence, there's certainly clockwork ticking behind its glassy, opaque eyes. The way it keeps Hyun-seo alive in its lair is reminiscent of all the dragon and princess tales of yore, where the dragon, while menacing and dangerous, is also somewhat pathetic and lamentable. This is a creature that has been unwillingly created, and therein lies The Host's subtle social and political commentary.
To combat the supposed virus that the creature hosts—we find out later that there is no virus— the U.S. military sets up a device along the riverbank to spray a chemical known as "Agent Yellow." This is obviously a nod to the destructive Agent Orange of Vietnam, but Bong Joon-ho also uses much quieter subversive elements. Perhaps the most pointed is the fact that the Agent Yellow device, when hanging from a crane, looks almost identical in shape to the curled up creature, dangling from a bridge at the beginning of the film. This calls into question exactly who is the bigger monster—the beast itself, or the careless U.S. military that accidentally created it? Though this may offend some who feel that America can do no wrong, and though the film was screened in North Korea because of its supposedly anti-American sentiments, The Host's criticisms are completely valid and directed not only toward the U.S., but also toward the Korean government, which is presented as uncaring and mildly authoritarian. The political statements are kept to a minimum, however, serving as backdrop rather than forefront, and the real story is the Park family's unifying tragedy. Combining monster movie theatrics with family drama and even a bit of slapstick, The Host defies expectations and delivers on all fronts.
The Host Blu-ray, Video Quality
I first caught The Host on DVD, and in nearly every respect the film benefits immensely from the leap to high definition. Here on Blu-ray, the film features a 1080p, VC-1 encoded transfer that is incredibly crisp and trumps the DVD with bold color and heretofore-unseen detail. This is a seriously sharp film. Facial textures are rendered true-to-life, with every pore and crease and bit of stubble individually visible. Check out the detail in Hyun-seo's face as she's trapped in the sewer—each mud stain on her cheek pops in crisp relief. Scenes in the rain look especially good, as water droplets trace shimmering lines down the actors' faces and the downpour shows off the image's deep sense of depth. The color palette is equally strong and saturated. Initial scenes along the riverbank present a nearly cross-processed look, with ultra-vivid colors and a thin, yellowish cast to the white balance. These bright, outdoor scenes can get too hot contrast- wise—whites peak, washing out detail, and black levels sometimes crush—but this is a directorial choice that emphasizes the heat and hazy terror of the day. The thin veneer of grain, which is only obtrusive once, during as especially dark scene, gives the image a warm, living feel. The only place where the DVD might be considered preferable—not to me, but I can see others making the case—is when it comes to the creature itself. The more detail we get in HD, the more clearly we can see that the CGI is not quite up to Hollywood standards. The fire toward the end of the film, in particular, looks flat and unconvincing. In all other respects, though, this is a stunning transfer that is more than worth the upgrade from the DVD.
The Host Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The Host certainly delivers a whole host of 5.1 channel audio options, as it features PCM, DTS, and Dolby Digital tracks in both Korean and English. As I'm not a fan of dubs, I went with the Korean Linear PCM 5.1 surround track for the purposes of this review, and I was pleased by the dynamic and directional prowess of the mix. The score sounds fantastic and opens up all of the channels with tight low-end, a firmly grounded mid-range, and highs that are steady and intelligible. As you'd expect from a film of this sort, surround speakers are put to good use, with various screams, squishes, thuds, and splashes sounding from the rears, and several nice, discrete effects— like when Hyun-seo kicks the beer can and it travels across channels before hissing in a fizzy eruption. The sound effects aren't always realistic—this isn't the most realistic film in general—but the film builds a convincing audio field regardless. Voices are generally well-prioritized, through there were a few moments when dialogue sounded muffled in the mix—admittedly not too big of a deal when you're mostly reading subtitles anyway.
The Host Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
While The Host comes equipped with a fine array of extras, Magnolia did unfortunately dump a handful of the features from the 2-disc Collector's Edition DVD, including 17 small featurettes. This exclusion seems inexcusable, especially considering the extra space available on a Blu-ray disc, but I'd consider the film's newfound video and audio quality to be more than enough reason to upgrade from the DVD.
Commentary by Director Bong Joon-Ho and Tony Rains
Bong brings in friend Tony Rains to act as interviewer and foil for this brisk and engaging English commentary track. Rains—who'er he be—proves truly insightful about the film's themes, and his line of questioning keeps the discussion focused. Bong elucidates many elements of the film's production—giving background information on the actors he likes to use, discussing inspirations for the story, and dissecting the technical difficulties of filming a CGI-heavy feature in Korea. All in all, a great track that will easily satisfy fans of the film.
Making of The Host with Director Bong Joon-Ho (SD, 9:43)
More than just an interview with the director, this feature also includes input by screenwriters Ha Joon-won and Baek Chul-hyun, along with DP Kim Hyung-goo and production designer Ryu Seong-hee. The director discusses his early influences for the film—the Loch Ness monster, the McFarland incident, and even M. Night Shyamalan's Signs—and the screenwriters talk about the research process, even going so far as to read scientific dissertations on mutation and study the reproductive process of leaches. We also get to see a lot of early production sketches, photos, and animations.
Storyboards (SD, 3:21)
This shows a series of storyboards for the initial monster attack and the film's climax, presented with some of the audio from the film.
Memories of the Sewer (SD, 9:42)
The cast and crew basically agree on how utterly disgusting it was to film in Seoul's sewers, where they faced tapeworms that can burrow through skin, risked disease by rolling around in raw sewage, and tempted the fate of electrocution by having the lighting rigs set-up in standing water. A great little feature!
Physical Special Effects (SD, 5:04)
In this segment we see the crew testing different types of rubber to be used for the creature's mouth, creating splashes using barrels filled with 500 kilograms of concrete, and figuring out how to best create the "Agent Yellow" effect. Initially, they were going to use curry powder...ouch!
Designing the Creature (SD, 11:21)
A fascinating look at the pre-production monster design, this segment features interviews with the director, creature designers Jang Hee-chul and Woo Jin-oh, and painter Ji Song-lee. Well worth a watch.
Animating the Creature (SD, 9:39)
Here we're shown all the individual layers that go into final composite shots, from the filmed plates, to rough CGI animations and finished textures. Unfortunately, there's no commentary by the CGI artists, but the images really do speak for themselves.
Puppet Animatronics (SD, 7:16)
Peter Jackson's famed WETA workshop provided a life-sized and articulated creature head to be used for close-ups, and this section shows its creation and some of its uses on set.
Bringing the Creature to Life (SD, 20:50)
San Francisco-based visual effects company The Orphanage provided all the CGI for the film, and this segment takes us inside their offices for a first-hand look at how the creature was animated.
The Family: Main Cast Interviews (SD, 3:42)
These aren't really interviews, but rather short segments with each main actor discussing his or her character.
Training the Actors (SD, 5:24)
Here we follow Bae Doo-na as she gets an archery lesson, and watch the male actors handle shotguns for the first time at a skeet-shooting range.
Gag Reel (SD, 7:39)
The CG artists apparently had a lot of after-hours fun with their creations, and some of those experiments show up here. The funniest part, though, is a bit with the principal cast members trying to introduce the film to its sponsors, but cracking up uncontrollably.
Deleted Scenes (SD, 8:06)
Korean Trailer (SD, 2:36)
The Host Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The Host is a great new entry into the canon of classic monster movies, and it also serves as a wake-up call for the American film industry to reverse its style-over-substance take on fright films. With a budget meager by Hollywood standards, The Host nevertheless proves that strong storytelling and a capable cast can out-wow CGI anytime. Despite dropping some of the special features that were present on the DVD, The Host is a worthy purchase on Blu-ray, featuring a spectacularly sharp image and boisterous sound. This one comes highly recommended.
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