The Host: Best Enviro Movie of the Year

What is an environmental movie? Is it a movie that uses the beauty of wilderness to make us fall in love with the earth, as for example Into the Wild, or Brokeback Mountain? Is it a movie that explicitly tackles an environmental issue, such as Erin Brocovitch, or The China Syndrome?

Or is it a picture that exploits the power of raw film to open up an environmental theme–such as the risk of radiation–with sheer imagination, such as (the original) Godzilla?

It’s a rhetorical question, but one with an inescapable answer: all of the above count as environmental movies, each in its own way, some better than others. And if this is true, as it surely is, than the best environmental movie of the year may turn out to be an unlikely candidate: the mesmerizing–and funny–Korean movie released internationally this year, The Host.

Though essentially a cheesy horror movie, it’s phenomenally well-directed, and to date has been the  best-reviewed foreign film of the year.

Anthony Lane of the New Yorker, hardly known for his raves, gushed that "there will be plenty of
filmgoers who yawned through “Godzilla” in 1998 and swore off large
amphibians for good. All I can say, to tempt them back, is that I have
seen “The Host” twice and have every intention of watching it again." The New York Times compared the director to Steven Spielberg, favorably, likened the humor in the film to Little Miss Sunshine, and explicitly noted the environmental theme:

…the film reminds me less of the usual splatter entertainments that
clutter American movie theaters and more of another recent horror film,
the one in which a newly thawed alien with a giant brain delivers
apocalyptic warnings to humanity about its imminent future. I’m talking
of course about the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”

The Village Voice compared the director Bong Joon-ho to Sergei Eisenstein, for crying out loud, and New York magazine called it "one of the greatest monster movies ever made."

Here’s the enviro part: the opening scene, shot in a cool, distant, almost documentary style, shows an American doctor working with a young Korean doctor in a morgue on an American military base in Seoul. The American doctor notices that dust has collected on the morgue’s supply of formaldehyde bottles, and orders the Korean doctor to pour the deadly, mutagenic chemical down the drain, even though the Korean doctor protests that it will go directly to the Han River, and that it’s against regulations. The American doctor sneers: "The Han River is very broad — let us be broad-minded, Mr. Kim." So the Korean pours the toxin down the drain, and the horror begins.

Astonishingly, this is not a fictional scene. Explained the director Joon-ho to Cineaste:

It was a double blessing for me to convey some political commentary in
the film and have it work within a genre. For instance, the opening
scene, when the two scientists are pouring chemicals into the Han River
refers to an actual event that took place six years ago. But at the
same time it’s a very typical monster movie opening.

Now insiders report that the new Frank Darabont/Stephen King movie about to be released, The Mist, is actually a rip-off of this modern classic, and far inferior. What a shock!

A word to the wise: rent the DVD, and see the original, before some overbaked Hollywood imitation ruins it for you. The Host turns a little strange at times, and it’s bizarrely funny, and has a monster that looks like some demented kind of oversized oyster sex, but as David Edelstein wisely noted:

In the end, though, this is a real horror movie. It’s hard to shake off
the first sight of the creature in the far distance, hanging from the
side of a bridge like some kind of pupa, then dropping into the water
and gliding toward shore (to the oohs and ahhhs of the dopes on the
bank, who throw food to it). When Hyun-seo becomes the mother she never
had to a homeless orphan who’s still alive when he’s dumped into the
monster’s bloody pit, The Host leaves the realm of its campy
modern counterparts. But then, despite cartoonish flourishes, it has
never functioned at the level of movies like Tremors or Eight Legged Freaks or even Jurassic Park.
This is a portrait of a country’s deepest anxieties, which just happen
to be distilled into a mandibled squidlike reptile. It has the tang of
social realism.

A word to the wise: on the DVD, choose the subtitled Korean version (that was shown in theaters over here), not the dubbed American version, which sounds as if five actors chosen at random were put in a room to ad lib dialogue in English. But most importantly, if you like good movies — don’t miss it.

(h/t: SFMike)

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

2 thoughts on “The Host: Best Enviro Movie of the Year

  1. I’m so glad you finally saw this great, weird movie. One of its most unsettling aspects is the black humor running throughout, from the initial slaughter of the Han river tourists throwing food at the creature, to the funeral shrine where the dysfunctional family acts out ridiculously, to the odd, unresolved ending.


  2. Thanks Mike for turning me on to this movie, and thanks David for the comment…though I haven’t yet finished your book (“City Limits: Walking Portland’s Boundary”) I have been enjoying it, especially the “interview” with Paul Shepherd…more on that subject before too long, I hope.


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