Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Movies: And now, ladies and gentlemen, the host of our show . . .

The Host, the 2006 Korean creature-feature from director Joon-ho Bong, came with some out-sized expectations. There was the collective cooing of the blogging classes, with folks throwing about term of praise like "brilliant" and "best of the year" and "the greatest thing out of Korea since pickled squid in a can." You can expect a certain level of hyperventilation out of the bloggers. Horror bloggers, unlike many all-pro film reviewer types, see loads of horror films. This rarely makes us highly discerning critics of the genre. Instead, it means we're often up to our nips in crappy films. We spend an inordinate amount of time doggedly plodding after absurdly half-assed storylines, suffering abysmal acting, and forgiving lame direction and effects. The cumulative result of this collective cinematic masochism is that, when we find a movie with even a passable amount of talent, skill, and polish, we tend to hail it as something like the second coming. But The Host was actually getting good notices from the slumming mainstream types. The NY Times and other respectable rags were giving the pic high marks for the stylishly retro monster approach and the smart integration of current environmental and political themes.

What's the official ANTSS position: The Host doesn't completely live up to the hype, but what it can deliver is worth checking out.

The central story of The Host is wonderfully simple. One sunny day, for no particular reason, a big monster slumps out of Seoul's Han River and goes ape in a nearby park. After the monster's apatite for destruction is sated, it snags a young girl and returns to the river, specifically a series of sewer tunnels our beastie calls home. As the authorities do not believe the girl is still alive and wish to quarantine all those who came in contact with the monster, it is up to the mildly dysfunctional members of the girl's family to come and save her.

The monster is wonderfully designed, looking something like an angry black train engine constructed out of random fish parts. It's confusion of fins and tentacles, claws and gills makes for a delightfully freakish beast. The nasty's mouth is made of many distinct toothy, grindy, sucky parts that it alone ranks as one of the most wonderfully bizarre bits of creature design in recent memory. Whenever this nameless monster is trashing its way through the picture, the film is firing on all cylinders. The filmmaker has a real feel for beast-driven mayhem and the joy with which he uses his monstrous star comes across.

What prevents the film being the out and out classic it is occasionally billed as is a long, dreary middle in which the monster fades into the background (making only a few fan pleasing cameos) and a somewhat nonsensical subplot about a supposed disease spread by the beast takes center stage. Here, the actors, who were sufficient to acting opposite a neato special effect, are pushed beyond their capacities in a failed bid to add gravitas and create a strong sense of backstory. Furthermore the disease subplot, which is what ushers in all the geo-political blah blah, is such a dramatic and narrative dead-end that whatever political points the director and screenwriter wished to make are lost to unnecessary complications and viewer indifference.

In fact, this whole middle act, and the somewhat puzzling fallout from these scenes that flows through the rest of the flick, seems to me to be the unfortunate manifestation of a common wrongheaded conceit of horror film criticism: movies "about something" are smarter and better than movies that aren't overtly "about something." This powerful bit of hogwash has become so entrenched in the critical community that I think filmmakers are actually influenced by it. They go out of their way to load their films with overt political and ethical commentary because they erroneously assume that such content guards them from making crap. Sadly, only talent, skill, and taste can safeguard against making crap. Shoving your political opinion into a garbage flick doesn't save it. It only makes your crap more tiresome.

Let's look at a specific and glaring case. George Romero has steadily increased the ideological load each of his flicks must drag along. Would you say that this increased political spin has resulted in better and better films? Was Land of the Dead really better than Night of the Living Dead? If anything, the increasingly overt political content has weakened his films and confused the basic premises of his entire series. For example, using the zombies as some sort of symbol of imperialist backlash in Land confuses the fact that zombies are after humans for reasons more dietary than ideological. It’s a lousy metaphor and a muddled plot point.

For years, horror fans and filmmakers have understood that the most charmingly laughable scenes of the classic horror flicks from the Universal Big Bang to the 1950s revival was the scene where some square-jawed and absurdly earnest scientist stepped forward to explain to the moral and social significance of the plot to the other characters. More often then not it was a fairly standard lecture on keeping science within the bounds of reason. Sometimes, in your less square flicks, it was a bid for sympathy for the creature: "But is it really that different from us? Sure, it feeds off human blood, emits a deadly radiation that melts the skin off our bones, and hunts with a savage and unreasoning thirst for death. But, don't we humans do the same thing? When we fight wars or play hockey or shop for intriguing undergarments, aren't we doing the very same things we condemn this monster for? Who are the real monsters here?"

The "about something" content in most contemporary horror films is as subtle, deep, and meaningful as the "et tu, monstro" speeches of the old flicks.

Possibly worse than the intentional inclusion of political pap is the moralistic whitewashing of flicks otherwise free of this sort of junk in a bid to make interest in them more palatable. No filmmaker reveled more in this post-production accumulation of social significance than Roth with his torture-porn revival flick Hostel. In an effort to make that flick's repellent allure less tawdry, critics happily provided a supposed subtext of a critique of American hubris. Really? Everywhere these jackasses go they encounter a post-EU Europe that can't drop to it knees fast enough to supply people with whatever they want provided the Euros are right. They've walked into a distinctly Euro-flavored free-market nightmare were human slaughter for entertainment needs no more justification than it is profitable and the film is supposedly about American hubris?

This isn't to say that horror can't or shouldn't be "about something." One could argue that simply by virtue of presenting concrete manifestations of our own collective nightmares all good horror films always contain a socially significant subject. What scares us is important by the very fact it scares us. If that's too abstract, there are subtle ways to integrate social themes and messages. A good horror movie riffs on the social anxieties we feel without giving away the game or leaving us with a "and knowing is half the battle" style take home message. There is, I think, a curious anti-media message in The Ring which is all the more interesting for never having some character step forward and say "Do we really want to be the sort of society were a tape people know will kill them would still be a threat?" In fact, it is this oblique approach to the social issues raised by the film that made Rings, the filler short the studios created to bridge the first remake and its sequel, so much better than Ring II, with its overt bits about child abuse.

Enough ranting – see what ranting can do to any endeavor? – back to film at hand. The Host is a brilliant creature feature that gets bogged down in the middle by an unnecessary and self-important "issues" subplot. But never fear. In their infinite benevolence, the consumer electronics industry has given us the ultimate weapon against this sort of thing: the skip chapter button. Use it judiciously and you can keep The Host brilliant.


Anonymous said...

This isn't a repost is it ? Or did you cover it in a different blog ? I recall reading a similar review that the mid-plot about govt etc get very political and whatnot.. Not that I've seen the movie myself to offer an opinion on it..

spacejack said...

Wow, I cannot tell you how much I agree with this. It warms my heart to hear it articulated so well.

Regarding The Host, I felt similarly about it. I think there's a lot of buzz about it because it's a breakout Korean film, it's a non-Hollywood movie with pretty high production values and has a well-conceived monster.

There are also some pretty impressive, long, single-shot scenes that are fun to watch as a film nerd, as well as the interactivity between the creature and "real" stuff.

Like a lot of films I see from Asia however, I can't help thinking the director is sometimes "aping" the cinematic techniques of western directors like Spielberg or Scorsese etc., without always using it in a way that effectively drives the plot.

That said, it's possible I don't know enough Asian film to know who's aping who.

Oh also, on Hostel: that's a hilarious observation. As you know, I am a fan of the film, but it really cracked me up to read reviewers "insights" into the political overtones of the film. I thought it was just me seeing that happening all the time. There are more than a few local reviewers who seem to grade movies based soley on how many anti-US-Iraq-occupation metaphors they can find (or think they can find.)

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

While I've never ranted about The Host before, I've regularly bitched and moaned about shoehorning of lame-o political "content" into otherwise cool films.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

I'm with you on not knowing enough about the cinematic traditions of Asian countries to speak about the origins of his style.

Honestly, I think this might be all of the third Korean flick I've ever seen (the others being a fairly bad spy thriller La Femme Nikita rip and a 'Nam meets The Haunting fright flick).

Anonymous said...

Yay, I've actually seen this movie!
What can I say that I haven't brought up before about my movie-watching lameness...

But, THAT'S not why I'm writing.

I liked this movie alot.

I thought your whole rant about inserting serious themes into a horror movie, either intentionally or afterwards by the critics, was a great topic and a hoot as well.

"But is it really that different from us? Sure, it feeds of human blood, emits a deadly radiation that melts the skin off our bones, and hunts with a savage and unreasoning thirst for death. But, don't we humans do the same thing? When we fight wars or play hockey or shop for intriguing undergarments, aren't we doing the very same things we condemn this monster for? Who are the real monsters here?"

That's some funny shit.

Your example of Romero is terrific, although I haven't seen LAND OF THE DEAD. But I can imagine what you're saying.

That one moment in the original NOTLD when Duane Jones is casually shot at the end, and the film suddenly takes on another dimension, is great.
But, the fact that it's so off-handed makes the point more as food to chew on rather than overtly. I think the whole "political statement" that some have described the film as (and maybe I have as well, to some degree) would have been weakened if Romero deliberately set out to make his film a "political statement."
The same way with his DAWN OF THE DEAD. Really, I think the few shots of zombies walking through the mall with Muzak playing is enough to make a statement of our consumer society without elaborating more on it, which I don't think he did. Beyond that, i don't think the film overtly attempts to make any more social commentary. I wonder if Roger Ebert read more into it, though.
I mean, moreso than Romero put into it, because I think Ebert defended the film when some reviewers were walking out because of the excessive gore, but I think Ebert may have emphasized the social commentary aspects of it.

Meanwhile, as for THE HOST. I get this impression, after watching the film and also reading (a little) about his other film MEMORIES OF MURDER, that director Joon-ho Bong has a love for horror films and also issues with his government.
Personally, I think he imagined a monster movie, and then he wondered, what would happen if such a monster actually existed, what would his government do?
I actually think it works, but the flashes of broad comedy is a little weird. That's either common for Asian films, or his sense of humor. Yeah, the comedy with the family sort of bumbling about sometimes was more off-putting than the actual political stuff.

But the basic idea of horror films being more than just horror films is an excellent theme and perhaps would make a great series.
Speaking for myself, I think I'd be one of those well-meaning or heavy handed schmucks who try to clumsily inflate the worth of a scare flick by introducing more serious themes.

"Sadly, only talent, skill, and taste can safeguard against making crap. Shoving your political opinion into a garbage flick doesn't save it. It only makes your crap more tiresome."

Funny (but to the point) point nervously taken. You know, for future reference.

I think THE EXORCIST can be viewed that way, too. That is, I think the film deals with some spiritual issues, but in a very specific way. i think fans of the film perhaps inflate how much the film goes about issues of religion and faith, whereas I think the focus is much smaller.
Specifically, the film is actually kind of a character study of Father Karras and his wrestling with his faith.
Regan's possession seems so arbitrary and existential, if I'm using that word correctly, it suddenly makes sense when we understand that Satan is attacking Karras through HER suffering.
Thinking about it, Satan actually blows it by playing his hand.
Huh. What if Karras died, his faith gone, and THEN we see that that was what Satan was after all along?
Er, I digress, sorry.
My point is, beyond this specific skirmish between the Devil and a man, the movie doesn't really purport to be more than that, issue-wise. But some people attribute more to it. But, it's enough to make you think about larger spiritual issues or whether the Devil actually exists and how he would operate. So, I guess another argument for less is more, and also, that more is less.

You know?

Okay. I should go.

Oh! But yes, definitely, any sequence involving the beast in THE HOST is grade A stuff.