This Week in Film: March 30, 2007

The Host finally arrives in Toronto.

One of my favourites from last year's Toronto International Film Festival was the Korean monster movie The Host, which finally opens here this weekend. The film -- already a smash in its native country and abroad -- is swimming in its praises: "[it's] on a par with Jaws" (Aint It Cool News) to "[it's the] scariest monster movie to come down the pike [...] since Aliens" (Premiere). Heck, I might as well add my own analogy while we're at it -- Bong Joon-ho's The Host is the most enjoyable, satisfying monster-slaying movie since... Tremors! It's simply the best damn monster movie of the decade. Yes, it's that good, folks.

But The Host is much smarter and more ambitious than Tremors. The film brims with inventiveness and wit unlike anything in its varied genre, which is often plagued by pointless exercises in violence and numbing special FX. The film is neither a gore-fest nor a mindless Creature Feature made specifically to show off the latest version of Maya 3D. The Host like I mentioned is actually a smart monster movie, which not only works on our primal fears but cuts into our deepest ones as well.

The story centers on the members of a dysfunctional family already struggling just to get along. Their problems are worsened one day when the youngest is captured by a massive, stomping mutant amphibian that emerges from the contaminated Han River. Now taking action into their own hands -- since the government is completely befuddled and incompetent -- the family must try to save their little girl (who may still be alive) from being a dinnertime dessert.

Rather loading all his energy into trying to make his monster scary (in case you're wondering, the thing looks like a giant late-stage tadpole with sharp teeth), Bong shrewdly focuses his attention on drawing out his characters' emotions. The family crisis is strewn thick with an honest, realistic sense of desperation, which feels neither overwrought nor oppressed. And because you would think that within the domain of a genre film, the director might exploit his creative license to be as over-the-top as possible, this is never the case. The helmer of the gripping Memories of Murder (Bong's impressive second film) is perceptive about the threat of humanity not only from a killer tadpole but from humans themselves.

The film also plants a multitude of sharp satiric jabs, from the jingoism of the US military to the hysteria and malaise of an impending bio/eco epidemic. Yet, remarkably, none of it feels hackneyed or pretentious (take note Roland Emmerich), but works quietly as subtext to suggest that the monster, not unlike the one in Shelley's Frankenstein, is our own messy creation -- a manifestation of our world-weary fears and anxiety -- which we need to eliminate.

Now ponderous themes aside, what about the monster... is it cool, you ask? Unlike in Ridley Scott's Alien, this beastie makes its grand appearance right from the get-go, rampaging and chomping away in broad daylight. Now I wouldn't go as far as saying Bong humanizes the monster, it is, however, by animalistic standards quite intelligent and at times seems to even possess a bit of a conscience. Though thankfully not to the point where we begin to side with it -- pity it we almost do -- so that when the monster meets its inevitable demise, it's a human triumph as much as it's about taking down the very thing our carelessness has helped to create.

I should also mention that the film is extremely funny, but not lightly or in that campy Toho "rubber-suit monster" sort of way. Instead, the humour is generally wry and deadpan, as Bong manages to layer and orchestrate his gags in such a way that would make Buster Keaton proud. Take this Tati-esque scene for example: a nervous crowd of pedestrians wait in the rain by the curb, sliding themselves away as far as possible from a seriously ill man who is coughing up a storm, until at some point he hawks up load of viscous phlegm before sputtering it out on to the wet street... yuck... then, from nowhere, a truck zooms by, hits the puddle and splashes everyone. Comic genius!

Of course with the film's cross-border success, Universal Studios has already snatched up the remake rights. But don't wait to see the American version, it will do nothing to enrich your worldly curiosity and, more importantly, your appreciation for monster movies. If you got an issue with monsters, bring a date to hold your hand; if you got an issue with subtitles, bring your reading glasses. Don't miss it.

Opening this Week:
The Host *
The Lookout
Radiant City
Between Two Notes

(* = Recommended)

(Photo: Magnolia Pictures)

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