Beyond the Multiplex

"The Host" rises up from American slime to destroy the Korean family! It must be destroyed! Plus: A new film on credit card debt will make you weep.


Andrew O'Hehir
March 8, 2007 5:30PM (UTC)

There's a lot of excitement in the film world around "The Host," the new monster movie from Korean director Bong Joon-ho that's finally reaching the United States. And why not? It's a vivid, anarchic picture that's high on old-fashioned thrills. It's sardonic, silly, violent and tenderhearted. It's purportedly political (though I wouldn't go too far with that). It's got a big, ugly rubber monster and a rubber-faced doofus for a hero, the kind of guy everybody thinks is a loser until he proves otherwise. If the family from "Little Miss Sunshine" moved to Korea and had to do battle with a big kid-eating mutant gazingus, well ... that would be very strange. But it might be a little like this. So what's not to like?

Nothing, actually. But here's what bugs me about the hype around "The Host," which isn't the movie's fault at all. In terms of humanity and cinematic ambition and any other admirable quality you can name, this picture stands in splendid isolation among contemporary horror films. This invites the question of exactly how horror arrived at its present dismal state. You risk being a generationally blinded idiot (as opposed to just a normal idiot) when you ask things like this, but I'll do it anyway.

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From the '50s deep into the '80s, horror movies were more or less the art films of disaffected suburban kids. (My disaffected suburban friends and I grew up watching both art films and horror movies, and we were hardly unique -- and yes, we ruined culture for future generations. But that's another story.) Giant irradiated bugs and rotting zombies and communistic pod-people and erotic parasites and child-eating janitors crawled from the collective subconscious to the screen and back again, driven by deep currents of fear and desire.

Even when horror movies were incompetent (and perhaps especially then) they reflected the guiding anxieties of the age. Freddy Krueger sprang from the paranoid, perverse underbelly of Reagan's America and could have been born nowhere else. George A. Romero's undead flesh-eaters (just how many recently dead corpses are available in rural Pennsylvania?) seemed like a crude symbolic force with many potential meanings -- student radicalism, the Ku Klux Klan, or just an urgent upwelling of the American cult of death -- all of them rooted in the specific neuroses of the 1960s. Dario Argento's maggot-riddled melodramas express postwar Italy's crisis of confidence just as clearly as Antonioni's arid and overpraised art films.

Maybe the beginning of the end arrived when film theorists and other bearers of the postmodern intellectual flame embraced horror films for their reputed transgression, and when the genre began to satirize itself. Let's face it, being rebellious is no fun -- in fact, it's no longer possible -- if university academics are on your side. As for horror self-mockery, I enjoyed the "Scream" films, but a little of that trend went a long way. After the neglected masterpiece "Wes Craven's New Nightmare" in 1994 -- in which the director, stars and studio executives behind the "Nightmare on Elm Street" series all play themselves, persecuted by a vengeful Freddy who still yearns for his close-up -- meta-horror had no new realms to conquer.

All this has left mainstream horror loaded with self-knowledge but drained of intellectual ambition. (I'm not talking here about Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa and so on, who are basically arty cult figures with some extra goop and gouged-out eyeballs.) We get remakes of classic '70s and '80s films by the carload, far grislier than their predecessors but also less dangerous, less alluring. Even the horror pictures that qualify as original works, like the "Saw" series, or Eli Roth's "Hostel" or Rob Zombie's "The Devil's Rejects," seem deep in the shadow of less self-conscious exploitation flicks of yore. They can only distinguish themselves through shock value, and even there only by depicting some gruesome injury you've never seen on-screen before. The things that made the classic horror films classics -- tension, dread, claustrophobic atmosphere, flashes of unexpected humor, a giddy and confused and erotic terror -- are almost completely absent.

Maybe I'll have to find a way to boil down all this instructive musing into a diplomatic question for the panel on contemporary horror, featuring Roth and several others, this weekend at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. Something more diplomatic, anyway, than "How come you all suck?" Maybe this is better: "You guys all try to rip off the Japanese and Korean films that straddle the barrier between horror film and art film. Is it just the lack of subtitles that make your versions suck, or do they suck in other languages too?"

I'll be in Austin to check out a passel of the low-budget American indies and documentaries for which that appealing festival has become known -- as well as its great weather and pleasant hangout potential, which make it quite unlike a certain other film festival I could mention in a much colder part of the American West. There are also a few higher-profile events, including the premiere of "The Lookout," the thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (of "Brick") and directed by Scott Frank (who wrote Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight") and a presentation by Robert Rodriguez, who will offer a peek at "Grindhouse," his mind-bogglingly self-referential new anthology project with Quentin Tarantino.

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But before I catch that plane for warmer climes, let's talk movies. Beyond the messy excellence ("messcellence"?) of "The Host," we've also got a documentary about an even scarier monster, the goblin of credit-card debt on which our entire shaky economic edifice is built. There's a terrifying drama shot on actual locations of the 1994 Rwanda massacre, and a comedy about an almost-forgotten country called Yugoslavia.

"The Host": It rose from American slime to destroy the Korean family! It must be destroyed!
Yes, the fishy, flippery, 60-foot-long thingummy who emerges from the polluted waters of the Han River in central Seoul to terrorize the populace in "The Host" is the result of poison from an American military facility. Well, what the hell else would cause such a horrible mutation? The fertilizer off Uncle Hang-soo's farm? I don't think so.

There's no question that Bong Joon-ho's film, which is the most satisfying monster movie in many years, takes some easy shots at the American military-technological colossus, and at the Korean government's sheepdog-like subservience to it. I'm inclined to interpret pretty much any junky old movie as a dialectical critique of whateverness, but in this case both the sanctimonious leftists and the contrarian critics are reading way too much into this simultaneously big-hearted and farcical adventure.

"The Host" may have one foot in the allegorical and mysterious world of contemporary Asian horror cinema, but the other one is closer to the sentimental big-screen spectacles of Steven Spielberg, or even Frank Capra. Bong's human villains are about as ambiguous as his monster: The Americans are diabolical Strangeloves and the Koreans are two-faced sycophants. His hero, on the other hand, is Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), a middle-aged loser with a bad blond 'do who slumbers away the days at his dad's riverside squid shack. (That isn't any kind of a joke: Koreans really, really like squid.)

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Gang-du's dad (Byeon Hie-bong) is a grump and complainer, his beautiful sister (Bae Du-na) is a champion archer who loses an international match through indecision, and his brother (Park Hae-il) is an embittered alcoholic. About the only sensible one is Gang-du's daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung), a resourceful little person of about 9 who puts up with this family as patiently as she can manage. Do you suppose coming face-to-face with a giant mutant whatzit will give this struggling family a chance at redemption, or what?

There's tragedy beneath the funniest bits of "The Host" and humor beneath the most serious passages, which is one reason why I don't think it should be viewed as some earnest political parable. When the big kahuna emerges from the muddy Han and begins gnawing up picnickers, the resulting chaos is both upsetting and comic -- at least until it grabs Hyun-seo and disappears. Even then, the film's tone is constitutionally unsettled: At the stage-managed ceremony of public grieving after the monster's first attack, the entire Park family collapses in a slapstick heap. As a stern orange-suited bureaucrat seeks to quarantine those who (like Gang-du) have actually touched the beast -- reputedly the host of a dangerous virus -- he wipes out in a pratfall worthy of Oliver Hardy.

Hyun-seo is gone, all right -- but is she really dead? After Gang-du gets a cellphone call from somewhere deep in the Han River sewer system, there is hope. Of course, as Gang-du explodes to a sinister American doctor late in the film, "Nobody ever fucking listens to me!" But our plucky family of working-class washouts doesn't give up easily. Infighting and bickering all the way, they take on the Korean cops and military, the evil and meddlesome Yanks (who want to release a poison gas called Agent Yellow in the city center), and, oh yeah, a hideous mutant creature who has their beloved Hyun-seo stashed somewhere for some future snacktime.

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While the ignorance, hypocrisy and lies on display in "The Host" may result from America's increasingly clumsy quest to subjugate the earth in the name of freedom, those are the tools of authority in all historical eras and all nations. It's always those at the bottom of the food chain (those whom nobody ever fucking listens to!) who must battle the mutant monsters. On the margins of high-tech consumer society, the squid-shack proprietors will always be with us (as Jesus observed). "The Host" is a thrilling ride and a sometimes dry, sometimes sweet comedy, but beneath all that is a humane and tragic view of life worthy of the greatest films. Even those without rubber monsters.

"The Host" opens March 9 in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Honolulu, Houston, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., Washington, Seattle and Austin, Texas; and March 23 in Albany, N.Y., Baltimore, Charlotte, N.C., Cleveland, Columbus, Ohio, Des Moines, Detroit, Hartford, Conn., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Indianapolis, Kansas City, Louisville, Milwaukee, Monterey, Calif., Nashville, New Haven, Conn., Providence, R.I., Richmond, Va., Sacramento, Calif., Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Santa Fe, N.M., and elsewhere, with more locations to follow.

"Maxed Out": One nation, under God (and the jackbooted heel of the credit-card companies)
Given that James D. Scurlock's documentary "Maxed Out" is a resolutely uncinematic progression of talking heads -- and they're talking about a subject most of us would rather not even think about -- it's a remarkably entertaining film. Maybe his next film should be about tropical skin diseases, or provide a complete history of dentistry.

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Tastes vary, of course, and I'm admittedly using "entertaining" in a dark, paranoid, confirming-your-worst-fears sort of way. The subject in question is credit-card debt, and by interviewing scores of experts and ordinary citizens Scurlock builds a damning incremental case that the old-fashioned banking system, in which credit was extended to those who were actually likely to pay the money back, belongs to the era of cave paintings and WordStar. In case the hair-raising interest rates and oh-so-clever hidden fees on your monthly hadn't clued you in, Scurlock argues that the U.S. economy is now based on ever-increasing and unsustainable levels of debt.

As Harvard economics professor Elizabeth Warren (a former advisor to the banking industry) explains in the film, people coming out of bankruptcy are the perfect credit-card customers. Why? Because they can't file for bankruptcy a second time -- and filing a first time has recently gotten harder -- and because, as one executive told Warren, "They've got a taste for debt. They're willing to make minimum monthly payments. Forever." Sound like anybody you know?

A business-school graduate, Scurlock (who is often confused with Morgan Spurlock, the director of "Super Size Me") takes a straightforward, almost anthropological approach to his subject. He obviously has terrific interviewing skills, because even the oleaginous creeps who buy and sell other people's delinquent debt on the Internet, and the debt collectors who style themselves as modern-day pirates skirting the outermost edges of legality, seem eager to explain their innovations for his camera.

Perhaps accidentally, Scurlock has assembled a grimly hilarious collection of Middle American characters, from Christian financial guru Dave Ramsey to Dave Ballew, a former Indiana banker driven out of the profession by its endless avarice, to Doris Gohman, a Minnesota homemaker who has been unable to convince the major credit reporting agencies that she isn't dead. (I suppose eventually she will be, and then they'll be right.) There are heroes like consumer advocate Bud Hibbs and investigative journalist Mike Hudson, who has exposed the shocking predatory home-loan practices of the nation's largest and most respected banks.

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I first saw "Maxed Out" last year at South by Southwest, and I can testify that when people do show up to see it, they respond with laughter, howls of outrage and sometimes with tears. (More than one college student -- a favorite credit-industry target -- has committed suicide under a rising mountain of debt.) Like most film critics, I tend to want imagination, cinematic craft and narrative flow even in documentaries, but there's a lot to be said for the startling clarity and directness of Scurlock's movie. His message is that the hyper-acquisitive lifestyle of our society is built, quite literally, on a house of cards and that all of us -- banks, politicians, the public -- are simply ignoring the coming disaster.

"Maxed Out" opens March 9 in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, San Francisco, Washington, Seattle and Austin, Texas; March 16 in Chicago and Minneapolis; and March 23 in Boston, with other cities to follow.

Fast forward: Revisiting the horrors of 1994 Rwanda -- and the innocence of 1989 Yugoslavia
"Beyond the Gates" is a drama shot in Rwanda by British director Michael Caton-Jones, in the actual locations where some of the worst atrocities in that nation's 1994 internal genocide occurred. As the film proceeds, it builds a sense of mounting horror, and the shameful episode it recounts is certainly worth remembering, no matter how much we might like to forget it.

As violence erupts between the ruling Hutu majority and the persecuted Tutsi minority in the spring of '94, the campus of a Kigali technical college presided over by a veteran English priest (John Hurt) and an idealistic young aid worker (Hugh Dancy) becomes an impromptu refugee camp. (The Hurt and Dancy characters are fictionalized composites, but the story is largely true to life.) Mobs of Hutus -- ordinary citizens who had lived peaceably with Tutsi neighbors for years -- set up unofficial roadblocks all over the country, maiming, raping and killing as they wished. Ultimately as many as 800,000 Tutsi would die, in the largest genocidal campaign since the Holocaust. The Western world essentially did nothing.

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At the Kigali college, the West did worse than nothing. As shown in the film, a small detachment of Belgian soldiers, on a United Nations monitoring assignment, protect the refugees for a while, as the murderous gangs outside the gates, wielding clubs and machetes, grow larger and more threatening. When French reinforcements show up, there seems to be hope. But the U.N. troops have only been ordered to extract all foreign nationals (i.e., a handful of white Europeans) and pull out, abandoning the 2,500 Tutsi refugees to their fate. I won't issue an official spoiler, but not much imagination is required.

So I think "Beyond the Gates" (released a year ago in Britain as "Shooting Dogs") is an important film, and it's too bad that it's not a very good one. This subject may not require much subtlety, but Caton-Jones is a Hollywood veteran ("City by the Sea," "The Jackal," "This Boy's Life," "Basic Instinct 2") who can't manage any at all, and the film lurches unsteadily from its early, sunny scenes into a headlong nightmare. Hurt and Dancy's characters seem like archetypes rather than people -- the Christ-like padre and the wounded young questioner, respectively -- and his Hutu and Tutsi characters might as well be armies of demons and angels. This is worth seeing if it comes your way, but both "Hotel Rwanda" and "Shake Hands With the Devil," the remarkable documentary about the Canadian general who failed to prevent the massacres, handle the material more gracefully. (Opens March 9 at the IFC Center in New York; March 16 in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington; March 23 in Chicago, Indianapolis and Seattle; and March 30 in Boston, with more cities to follow.)

On the other side of the '90s atrocity ledger we find "Border Post," a history-maker as the first-ever cinematic collaboration between all the former Yugoslav republics (if you're keeping score, those are, or were, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia-Montenegro and Slovenia -- with the split between Serbia and Montenegro coming after the film was made). Rajko Grlic's film is a sometimes wistful, sometimes farcical comedy, in the honorable Eastern European tradition, set along the Yugoslav-Albanian border in the halcyon days of 1987.

We've got an incompetent lieutenant who doesn't want his wife to learn about his STD and concocts a dangerous international incident, while his men -- recruits drawn from the various nationalities of Comrade Tito's makeshift country -- desperately want to get out of uniform and go home. "Border Post" is an exceedingly well-crafted military satire, but of course it's mostly memorable for its delicate foreshadowing of the tremendous tragedy that awaited all these men, and would destroy their country, in the following decade. (Now playing at the Pioneer Theater in New York. Other engagements may follow.)

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Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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