The Host

Bae Doo-na, Byun Hee-bong and Song Kang-ho in The Host

 

In Memories of Murder, the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho made an interesting point about the police procedural – that no matter how “tortured” the cop/protagonist, no matter how broken his background, how fractured his family life, how severe his problem with drink, he always remains a hero. Not in Memories of Murder he doesn’t. Nor did the case get solved by inspiration, Sherlock Holmes-ian deduction, or even solid police work – it was mostly luck, that’s when the cops weren’t beating information out of people. The Host is Bong’s observations on the creature feature, another home for the hero. But, again, not here. Bong first gives us a bit of Godzilla-style backstory – toxic waste pouring into Seoul’s River Han has caused a hideous mutation to take place. Meanwhile, on dry land, we meet the family that’s going to be most closely affected once the creature decides to crawl out of the river and go postal – among them a drunken, no-good dad, a horrible sniping brother and a worthy, decent sister who, we learn, was an Olympic archer. In Hollywood there would be only one possible outcome here – that the decent girl would eventually rise to become the hero character. But will she in South Korea? What, for instance is the significance of the fact that she only won a bronze medal when she was at the Olympics? Is the monster going to offer her a chance to go for gold?

Bong takes time to introduce his characters, works within the obviously limited budget to deliver a creature that’s a piece of work, all tail and mouth, as horrible as it is athletic as it is intriguing. And then he plays the intrigue game with the characters, shifting the focus and our expectations from one to the next, sharing out redemption between them, because redemption and heroism are also often linked, he’s making clear. But like Memories of Murder, the strength of The Host is that you can ignore all this “commentary on a genre” aspect entirely and watch it as a straight-out creature feature and it’s very good indeed – fresh, thrilling, tense, humane, even funny now and again – there’s nothing arched or forced.

Films like this are often referred to as a Hollywood calling card, which is a tremendously Victorian way of putting things, but in Bong’s case his film is more like fan-fiction – he clearly knows his sources but is taking things into his own universe, in his own way, as well as he can with the money to hand. If Hollywood wants him, it’s most likely going to be on his terms.

 

 

 

The Host – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

Snowpiercer

John Hurt, Chris Evans and Jamie Bell in Snowpiercer

 

That sound? The plane taking off from LAX taking a great Asian director back home, sobbing with disappointment. It happened to John Woo, who did at least manage to crank out Face/Off, but his sad run of Hollywood films include Windtalkers, Mission: Impossible II and Hard Target. To the Pang brothers too, whose The Eye was one of the attention-grabbers of 2002. They came to Hollywood, made The Messengers for Sam Raimi, then put their tail between their legs and went home.

So what about the latest Asian import, the great South Korean director Bong Joon Ho, whose uniquely flavoured movies include Memories of Murder, a killer-thriller-whodunit whose cops get their man more by brutality and naked luck than sleuthing. Or The Host, a monster movie in which the hero doesn’t so much step forward, as find that everyone else has taken a step back. How is Mr Bong going to go down in a town where irony is a dish best served not at all?

The answer is Snowpiercer, an adaptation of the 1982 cult French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, a post-apocalyptic thriller set on board a train of 1,001 carriages that has been travelling non-stop for 17 years through a world that is entirely frozen. Outside, the passengers are told, everything is extinct. Inside, the train is run on feudal Orwellian lines, with the bosses at the front, the proles at the back, and a massive system of repression, propaganda and eventism keeping everyone, but mostly the proles, on-message.

The uneasy equilibrium is disrupted when Curtis (Chris Evans) and sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell), emboldened by ragged spiritual mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) to make a break for the front of the train and either overthrow the Big Brother-style leader Wilford (Ed Harris) or convince him at least of the need for a little more gravy down the back end.

Post-apocalypse, little men against a corrupt leader, steampunk technology, a quest: we’ve seen films like this a lot over the decades, often starring Arnie or Will Smith or Tom Cruise, films that pause to crack a wry one-liner but are otherwise propulsive, fairly humourless and full of action and dead bodies.

The first sign that Bong isn’t quite making that sort of film comes early on, with the arrival of Mason (Tilda Swinton), one of Wilford’s henchpeople, who has come down from the front to the back to the train – and looks very unhappy about it too – to nip rebellion in the bud. In a convoluted speech Mason contemptuously tells the rear-dwellers that they should be happy with their lot, that everyone has their role and, pushing an ill-chosen metaphor beyond breaking point, that “I am the hat; you are the shoe”, all this while a miscreant is having his arm frozen off by exposure to the outside elements, pour encourager les autres. It’s the sort of scene you can imagine being in Total Recall, except that screenwriters Kelly Masterson and Bong Joon Ho have other ideas: Swinton comes equipped with a comic northern English accent, a face full of big teeth and her coat is constantly slipping off her shoulders.

The whole film is like this – familiar sci-fi tropes undermined by Bong’s oblique strategies.

I’m not going to explain the film’s entire plot, except to say that Curtis, Edgar, their ragged-trousered team and a couple of South Koreans (Song Kang-ho, Ko Ah-sung) they’ve woken from cryo-sleep do indeed make a dash for the front, each carriage a marvel of Wachowski-esque set design (one’s a classroom teaching elite kids, another is a vast glass house hydroponically growing crops, another is a bespoke tailor’s, another a dentist, a nightclub, a cocktail bar), through a train whose metaphorical purpose couldn’t be made more explicit if the word “allegory” were flashing up on screen every few minutes.

It is a fantastic, fabulous, ludicrous and lovely film to look at, and as Curtis and crew battle forwards they are assailed by bullets, bombs and even a medieval axe attack in one entirely blacked-out carriage. But one great, breathtaking and fanatically detailed scene followed by another doesn’t necessarily equal a great film. And that’s the case here. Partly this is Evans’s fault – he’s likeable but lacks heroic charisma. But mostly it’s because I think Bong wanted it that way. For example, in the middle of the medieval axe fight the combatants pause to wish each other a happy new year. Bong is deliberately subverting the heroic action blockbuster with little human touches (the slipping coat) at almost every turn.

But this deviously ironic film insisting on nuance where the genre generally goes for broad brush isn’t helped – is undermined, in fact – by its blunderbuss approach to satire. In particular the final long rambling “explains it all” speech by Wilford that more or less throws away the claims to specialness that the film has carefully wrought. Is this Bong’s doing? Masterson’s? The studio’s?

Snowpiercer isn’t boring, and there’s really nothing to touch it for production design and world-building. File it next to the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas in the drawer marked Mad Brilliant Messes with a Thumping Message.

Bong’s next film is being made in South Korea.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014