Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Host (South Korea): Blu-ray Review - Surpassing Godzilla

South Korea´s domestic box office has always had to rely on foreign-made--mostly Hollywood films--for its profits. In Asia, Hong Kong-made films are the most popular, with most other Asian countries lagging far behind in terms of quality. However, in recent years, it is the locally made films that have been making waves and raking in the money in South Korea. This remarkable resurgence in South Korean cinema is not only affecting the domestic film market in a positive way but also the international one as well. As of now, the box office king in South Korea is 2006´s well-received monster film, "The Host." This feat is made more remarkable by the fact that this movie is a special effects-heavy extravaganza that was made on a relatively limited budget of approximately $10 million (a huge sum by local standards but a tiny drop in the Hollywood pond).

The first questions that might pop into your head would be, "A South Korean-made monster movie? Wait, does it use stop-motion photography to animate the monster?" Very funny but I´m here to tell you that you would be surprised what $10 million can buy you away from Hollywood. Various pieces of the special effects on this film are actually produced by some of the biggest names in the business including Weta Workshop, The Orphanage Inc. and John Cox´s Creature Workshop.

On the surface, "The Host" may seem like a generic-sounding monster movie but at its core, it is really a social commentary on the ills of continued American military presence in South Korea, the environment and pollution and the importance of sticking together as a family. It is that last point about familial ties that makes this film not only enjoyable but touching as well. Proving once again that monster movies do not always have to be just about blood and gore to keep the audience engaged.

The creature depicted here is not some mystical monster awakened from its dormant sleep but is actually a result of man´s carelessness in treating the environment. The opening scene shows an American doctor at a military base ordering his South Korean assistant to get rid of hundreds of old bottles of formaldehyde by pouring the contents down the sink. The toxic contents empty into the Han River, the country´s main tributary that flows through the capital city, Seoul. This reckless act is used as the main reason for why an aquatic animal from the Han River mutates into a hideous man-eating creature that now prowls the river´s edge and the surrounding network of sewage drains. It may be a bit far-fetched but hey, this is after all a movie about a mutated monster.

Central to the story is the Park family, who runs a snack shack located by the river. Gang-Doo (Song Kang-Ho) is a slow-witted man and together with his father Hee-Bong (Byun Hee-Bong), they serve customers--who have come to enjoy the serene surroundings--various snacks and drinks. Other members of the Park family include Gang-Doo´s young daughter Hyun-Seo (Ko A-Sung), his sister Nam-Il (Park Hae-Il) who is a champion archer (South Korea is home to many world and Olympic champions in the sport of archery) and his bitter and unemployed college-educated brother Nam-Joo (Bae Doo-Na), who is also an alcoholic.

On a beautiful afternoon, a group of people started to gather around the base of a bridge gawking at an unidentified creature hanging from the bottom of the bridge. Without warning, the monster started attacking everyone in its path. In the ensuing chaos, Gang-Doo loses sight of Hyun-Seo and she is snatched up by the monster and taken away--presumably to be eaten elsewhere.

This big opening scene is probably the most exciting and intense of all because it not only shows you the monster up close and personal but most surprisingly, it was allowed to occur so early in the film. Movie monsters are seldom revealed until much later into the film--something about teasing the audience. Director Bong Joon-Ho just obliterates that arcane concept and shoves the monster right into our faces. It is not only a refreshing change of pace but exhilarating as well.

Later on, while all the survivors of the attack are quarantined at a detention center, Gang-Doo receives a brief and garbled phone call from Hyun-Seo´s cell phone, a clear indication that she is still alive. Of course, when the authorities turn a deaf ear to Gang-Doo´s pleas for them to help find his daughter, the dysfunctional Park family decides to take matters into their own hands. And this is where the fun really starts. The unpredictable dynamics between the individual family members is such that there is never a dull moment when they are together. One minute, they could be cursing at one another and the next, hugging and crying. Even a simple scene where the four of them are just sitting around slurping down bowls of instant noodles can provide such subtle moments of hilarity that it is hard to imagine that these are really actors and not actually related to each other.

While the Park family´s obstacle-strewn journey to rescue Hyun-Seo is the highlight of the film, director Bong is able to add a layer of social commentary into his film. Mostly critical of the people in authority, Bong portrays the government and other international health agencies (like the CDC or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) as incompetent liars who are trying to cover-up their own misdeeds. Instead of dealing with the man-eating monster and its origins, the government tries to deflect the media´s focus by stressing the danger of a non-existent virus carried by the monster.


It is only fitting that the best monster movie in recent years originated from Asia, home to the granddaddy of them all, Godzilla. "The Host" takes monster movies into a new and refreshing direction. Oftentimes, the characters in these types of movies are treated as only fresh bait and you can mostly guess who is going to be the next victim. Here, it is the direct opposite. The characters in this movie are not only believable but sympathetic as well, giving the audience an opportunity to make an emotional investment in them. The premise of a family of misfits fighting against a freak of nature in order to rescue a loved one may not be new but "The Host" makes it so endearingly wonderful to watch, you would love every minute of it.


Video:
Magnolia Home Entertainment has accorded this Blu-ray version of "The Host" an excellent transfer that is encoded in VC-1 at a maximum resolution of 1080p and presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. From the opening scene until the final frame, I was wowed by how the bold colors just pop out at you. Skin tones look natural and the black levels are spot on. The level of clarity is such that one is able to discern the fine details between every stand of hair and every pore on the faces. With such clarity, the depth effect in the images is simply incredible to watch. However, with such realism in the presentation, the computer-generated monster can sometimes look out of place. Most of the time, the monster blends into the scene seamlessly but every once in a while, like at the end of the film, you would see it for what it is--a CG effect.

Audio:
Three distinct audio flavors are provided on this disc and each one is replicated, one for the dubbed English language and the other for the original Korean language track. The three audio formats are: uncompressed PCM 5.1 (4.6 Mbps/48 KHz), DTS-HD 5.1 (1.5 Mbps) and Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 kbps). If you own a receiver that can handle uncompressed PCM through HDMI, this should be your default choice because it literally blows the other two audio options away. The PCM track is so much richer and more robust-sounding with a deeper bass and an all-round dynamic enveloping effect. The surround channels are actively engaged with nice directionality effects. While the DTS-HD 5.1 track is no slouch either, it is no match for the higher bitrate PCM option. Lowest on the totem pole is the now puny-sounding Dolby Digital 5.1 track. And if you are so inclined, do watch this movie in its native Korean language, as the voice actors in the dubbed English version are just horrible. Subtitle options include English, English SDH and Spanish.

Extras:
Although there are some better than average special features included on this Blu-ray version of "The Host", the quantity does not even come close to the 2-disc Collector´s Edition DVD of the movie. This is really a shame as I´m sure finding extra disc space to fit them is not the real problem. Whatever the reason, what is included here would satiate any fan of the movie. Note that none of these features are presented in high-definition as they are essentially ported over from the DVD version.

Starting off, there is an audio commentary by director Bong Joon-Ho. This is an informative commentary and best of all, it is in English and not Korean with subtitles. In it, Bong discusses the many challenges he faced when filming this movie including the limited budget and the various pitfalls of working within the South Korean movie industry.

Next is a feature titled, "Making of The Host," which is actually broken up into 4 sub-sections: "Making The Host with Director Bong Joon-Ho," "Storyboards," "Memories of the Sewer" and "Physical Special Effects." While the first one has Bong talk about how the movie was conceived, the others are more targeted towards specific aspects of the show.

"The Creature" is another feature that is also broken up into 4 smaller segments. Each of them deals with the various aspects of creating the monster, including "Designing the Creature," "Animating the Creature," "Puppet Animatronics" and "Bringing the Creature to Life."

"The Cast" is a featurette that takes a look at the main cast members. It is divided into two section: "The Family: Main Cast Interviews" and "Training the Actors."

In "Gag Reel," the main focus is on the creature animation where the animators make it do some silly things. You don´t see any of the usual line flubs here. And rounding up this section are a set of "Deleted Scenes" and the Korean movie trailer.

Packaging:
"The Host" comes in a regular Blu-ray case without an insert.

Film Value:
"The Host" may be a low-budget monster movie but the way that the main characters are developed and the story executed puts most Hollywood movies in the same genre to shame. Granted that the pacing could have been better if the director had not dwelled too much on the government´s virus cover-up story but in the overall scheme of things, it is needed to heighten the level of tension and put the lives of the Park family in further jeopardy, not only from the monster but also the authorities as well. "The Host" is a great popcorn movie that is only made better by the pristine high-definition transfer together with an immersive soundtrack. This is a film that is not to be missed.

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