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Magnolia presents
The Host (Gwoemul) (2006)

"It's watching!"
- Gang-du (Song Kang Ho)

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: July 23, 2007

Stars: Song Kang Ho, Byun Hee Bong, Park Hae Il, Bae Doo Na, Ko A Sung
Other Stars: David Joseph Anselmo, Scott Wilson
Director: Bong Joon-Ho

MPAA Rating: R for creature violence and language
Run Time: 01h:59m:46s
Release Date: July 24, 2007
UPC: 876964000994
Genre: horror


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A+ A+B+A B

DVD Review

There's something rotten in South Korea's Han River, and in the case of The Host, it's a giant lizard-like mutant with a knack for gobbling up humans, eating some and stashing others in its secret lair. The reasons for the creature's existence get a gloriously simple explanation during the prologue—something to do with dangerous chemicals being dumped down the drain at a U.S. military base—but how it came to be or why never seems to become a nagging question. Director Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder) places the real weight of his story on a slightly dysfunctional family desperately searching for a creature-abducted relative, while avoiding a military that has instituted a governmental lockdown after concerns over a deadly virus arise in the wake of the attacks.

Here's a film that takes the framework of an old-school genre—and one that has been largely ignored in recent years—revitalizes it with large nuggets of Korean culture, and mixes in some traditional monster movie elements. But what Bong Joon-ho really does is a sit-up-and-take-notice job of bucking the old way of doing things by not keeping the monster in shadows until the final reel and, more importantly, taking the story in wildly unexpected directions. Just fifteen minutes into this one, we're given a lengthy broad daylight attack sequence in a crowded riverfront park, a fine bit of CG mayhem that not only sets up the primary conflict, but a moment that carries some incredibly bold and clever camera shots, which give the big lizard thing an aura of genuine dread and menace.

Song Kang Ho is Gang-du, the slightly dim bleached-blond single father determined to find his 13-year-old daughter Hyun-seo (Ko A Sung), who is able to make one brief cell phone call from the monster's lair to tell her dad she's still alive. Gang-du teams with his aging, snack-cart owning father (Byun Hee Bong), his college-educated protestor brother (Park Hae Il) and his championship archer sister (Bae Doo Na), forcing a very awkward family reunion—they have to put aside their differences in order to rescue poor Hyun-seo. There is some depth to the characters, and the father-son relationship between Byun Hee Bong and Song Kang Ho is a bittersweet beauty, building to a revelation and a confrontation that add up to the kind of powerful emotional trigger not usually found in your run-of-the-mill monster flick.

The CG work—save for a couple of random moments here and there—is very well done, with the oddly-shaped beast moving with great speed and agility. A few particularly exciting slow-motion scenes feature a character in the foreground while the creature—slightly out of focus—is charging them from behind. And while Bong Joon-Ho does give viewers prolonged shots of the creature—and its unusually acrobatic attack methods—it is the way he juggles a trio of converging storylines that often seems just as daring. He mixes odd moments of humor, such as a wacky hospital escape, against much darker elements, and the childlike Gang-du, who would be easy to pawn off as comic relief, is able to retain a solid layer of both humor and empathy.

In the accompanying commentary on this release, Bong Joon-ho addresses and denies what some have cited as an underlying anti-American sentiment in his film. The very loose origins of the story are based on an actual incident (minus the monster, of course), and I was struck by the need for him to even have to address the issue at all. All monster films need a very wrong spark to birth the havoc that will follow, and having the conceptual bad guy be the U.S. military (accidental or not) never seems to me any worse than what was found in the old nuclear-testing-made-a-monster films from the 1950s. Don't let the politics weigh you down, because Bong Joon-ho has given the monster genre a tremendous shot in the arm with The Host.

This is the way a monster movie should look and feel.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: The Host has been issued in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Some very moderate softness and light grain in certain scenes, but overall a notably strong, impressive transfer. No major compression issues, with bright colors throughout, and even the dark scenes deep inside the monster's lair carrying consistently defined shadows. The source print is very clean, with no apparent nicks or debris.

Nice.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Korean, Englishyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Korean, Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The original Korean language audio is included here, in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 surround. The 5.1 is the preferred option, and the aggressive mix sports some effective sound cues that really help sell the creature attack sequences. Voices and assorted noises move nicely in all directions—balanced by a resonant .LFE—which turn moments like the big park attack bit into a wide, swirling experience.

A pair of weak and poorly done 5.1 and 2.0 dubs in English are here if you absolutely can't stand subtitles, but I don't recommend them at all. Certain scenes are so off they have to be more distracting than the hassles of reading ever could be.

Audio Transfer Grade: A

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
11 Deleted Scenes
2 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Bong Jong-Ho, Tony Raines
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Magnolia has also issued a two-disc set of The Host, but this review looks at the single disc version. The content on this version matches Disc 1 of the two-disc set, in case you're wondering.

A commentary from director Bong Joon-ho (speaking English) has him paired with a personal friend named Tony Raines, who, judging by his accent, is British. Raines serves as the moderator, prompting Bong Joon-Ho on certain subjects and key motifs and aiding in clarifying any language speedbumps. There's mention of how certain real-life events formed the basis of the film's "formaldehyde in the sink" open, pressures of being asked to reduce the number of monster CG shots for budget reasons, and even a discussion of the perceived anti-American slant to the story, something that Bong Joon-ho denies. Raines does a nice job bringing up small Korean-specific moments that Western audiences might not understand, and the explanations given—while not essential to enjoying The Host—add a nice supplemental layer.

There's a block of deleted scenes (23m:20s) that are worth sitting through, if only for a few additional creature shots. The deleted news clips (04m:40s), on the other hand, are a bit disjointed, and feature the news audio played over a series of seemingly unrelated scenes. Director Bong Joon-ho's Reflections (05m:29s) has the filmmaker doing something I don't see very often, which is to give kudos to the actors in scenes that have been cut.

No trailer for the feature, but there are previews for Dynamite Warrior, Severance, and The Signal. The disc is cut into 24 chapters, and includes optional subtitles in English and Spanish.

Extras Grade: B

 

Final Comments

Bong Joon-ho skews and reworks the rampaging giant monster genre with a fresh dose of Korean narrative unconventionality, balancing humor and tragedy in great doses. The film's park attack sequence is a nail biting joy to behold, with Bong Joon-Ho boldly giving audiences extended, full-on daylight shots of the creature within the first 15 minutes. And it just gets better from there...

Not just the year's best monster movie, but one of the best releases of 2007—period. Highly recommended.

 


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