I looked into the eyes of The Beast and laughed.
I also grimaced, cheered, got teary, then guffawed in the strangest places. Like my favorite Korean film – nay, let me say one of my favorite films, period – Flander's Dog, what is being called The Host in English (괴물 or "Monster" in Korean) is simply a difficult movie to categorize. His subsequent movie, with which many readers will be much more familiar – Memories of Murder – was also equally a genre-bender; it wasn't merely a murder mystery, a suspense thriller complete with satisfying ending (the murderer was never found, making this an interesting historical incident to focus on in the first place), nor was it just a trip down nostalgia lane, which is what many Koreans experienced when they watched the film's vivid depictions of a Korea stuck way back in the 1980s, when it was much more rough around the edges, with a country, rustic, yet warm familiarity and informality that piqued the childhood memories of many middle-aged Koreans who went to see the film.
Whew. Run-on sentence alert! But I like it as it is, so I'll let it stand.
Anyway, I had to get permission to tell this tale, as director Bong Joon Ho's "Monster" is still top-secret. I was told not to describe the monster's appearance or attributes in any way, lest the movie lose some of its thunder. But I will say that I don't want to talk about the monster, anyway. There's no need to, since the movie's not really about the monster.
And that's all I'm gonna say about that. Still – is this a surprise? Flander's Dog had a plot centered around dogs in an apartment complex, yet the movie really wasn't about dogs. In fact, they were incidental to the main narrative and emotional underpinnings of the story. Memories of a Murder wasn't really about the murderer or the victims themselves. It was about exposing certain social fissures and rich points of life as it was back then – yes, all stirred up and swirling in motion around the ripple effects of the murders going on then, but movie didn't even try to speculate as to who the murderer might have been or the eerie fact that they were never satisfactorily solved. Had the easy Jack the Ripper parallel been made, we surely would have been treated to an image of a shadowy figure – he could be anywhere, you know?! – walking off camera into the crowd, sort of like Hannibal Lecter at the end of Silence of the Lambs, when our favorite fava bean feaster announced that he was going to "have an old friend for dinner."
No, the new movie isn't any different, so it should be not surprise to you to hear that the movie named "Monster" is not really about...the monster. If this were the Korean equivalent of Godzilla, I'd be running for the hills, and not out of fear, but rather the loathing that I have started to feel for the melodramatic, overwrought, and overdone Korean blockbusters that have started being produced, in cookie-cutter fashion, out of Korean production houses.
This movie's just plain innerestin', dear readers. You've got the slice-of-life, real-people-in-the-world view of Korean life and culture, some incidental and sometimes countervalent, yet never annoyingly obvious social commmentaries (well, maybe once – tell me if you notice where that is), and a whole heapin' helpin' of getting to watch ordinary people do the wackiest – yet somehow humane and utterly believable – things when under the extreme duress posed by...the monster.
Which brings me to the subject I'm supposed to leave alone. Let me just say that it's not a gimmick, it's not a walking social allegory – it's a...monster. When I first heard about the movie, I instantly and instinctively jumped into analytical mode, thinking that maybe this would be like Godzilla to Japan – a walking, fire-breathing allegory for the nuclear victimization that the Japanese experienced in the twin fireballs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a pain that was being re-experienced via a baby lizard that got muta-metamorphosized by American nuclear tests into the mean, green embodiment of postwar victimology that we like to watch throw down with King Kong, Ghidrah, or Mothra on lazy Sunday afternoons.
Them Japanese! They so craaazy!
Needless to say, I was way off the mark. There's no real blame – well, not much – nor implicit social satire, connected to the monster's existence. However, the movie does what his previous movies have – which is to look kinda cockeyed at certain aspects of Korean society; it's not preachy, nor is it overt enough to be noticeable. Still, the director gets a few "jabs" – nay, just "pokes" – in there, at a variety of characters in Korean society.
America doesn't escape getting poked pretty hard in the first scene, but I think it gets interesting and unexpectedly balanced by another plot point that makes for an interesting mixture of "pokes" and "jabs" when combined with the many others. If you are the kind of American who finds yourself, deeply offended every time somebody takes a critical shot at the US, you might find yourself grumbling in your seat during the opening scene; if you're a good sport and take it along with all the other sticking and moving that the director does, touching on a variety of places in Korean society, you'll easily forget that first 30 seconds and take it with the sense of humor and grain of salt that it needs to go down smoother.
One little treat that I enjoyed – and also offers itself as a strangely random connection to Silence of the Lambs, which I gratuitously threw in an image for above – was the surprise appearance of Paul Lazar in this film in a role that I'll let you relish all to yourselves (the picture below comes from another film). His appearance really reminded me of the performance I starkly remember from Silence of the Lambs, which added a peculiarly funny-yet-creepy flavor to an otherwise dead-serious film. In slight contrast, his role in The Host comes off as creepy-yet-funny, which is a great fit in a film that is at times as hilarious as it is dark.
I love this guy. And that picture's (from a movie I haven't seen but want to called The Debt) hilarious. When I saw him in Bong's film, I felt an instantly closer connection to Bong's sense of humor and the reason I like his films. That guy's great for the role he played. Again, I'll let you see for yourself.
Obviously, you might be finding this little "review" frustrating in that it's so non-specific. I myself can't tell really whether I'm writing a "review" or simply a booster piece for the film. I can say that I liked it a lot and highly recommend it, along with his other major films – Flander's Dog (you might also search by the "official" English title, A Higher Animal) and Memories of a Murder – which I suggest you see before seeing this one. If you're gonna pick between the two, I'd suggest you take your wallet out to a DVD store and buy the doggie flick.
A lot of Koreans missed the first one, or said they were "bored" by it; every single foreign-body I've shown it to found it fairly-to-frickin' fascinating. I'm pretty sure you will as well, which is why I'm suggesting you go out and just buy the film. Since Flander's Dog has been on discount for such a long time, it might not cost much more than you would spend to rent it, anyway. And this film is on top rotation in my collection, so it's worth the money as a stock flick for company – it's something most people never heard of, it's damn good and they thank you for introducing it to them, and it's also something I don't mind watching again and again. I was also happy that it was one of the first Korean DVD's to be put on disc in anamorphic widescreen, which means it looks damn good, even blown up on my 100" screen. Niiice.
As for "the monster" in the summer flick in question, I will definitely be watching it in the theaters, even though I've seen it several times on both my own big and the studio's small screens. It's worth dropping some cash on, especially since I think a Korean audience will be quite responsive to a lot of the movie's scenes and themes.
I have been in a dark room with director Bong's Monster, and lived to tell the tale. And what a tale it is. Bong Jun Ho is one director who's still in major effect, ya'll.