New Korean Cinema has many trademarks which I enjoy. Its films are full of great actors including but not limited to Song Kang-ho and Choi Min-sik. They are as entertaining as they are insightful about the world in which we live. But more than anything, what I love about New Korean Cinema (as well as Korean cinema and television from every era I have encountered) is its willingness to use striking tonal shifts.
The Host (2006) is an exemplary example of New Korean Cinema’s chameleonic nature in regards to genre and tone. It is often described as a monster movie because its plot centers on a creature rising from the Han River to go on a rampage. It does have many tropes of that genre, not least of which is a memorable monster — expertly designed by Chin Wei-chen — and action sequences in which it destroys people and property. But to describe The Host as simply a monster movie (a sub-genre which I love) is to miss all of the subtle yet rich tonal transformations which it frequently undergoes.
Many of those changes are due to the fact that this movie is, in addition to many other things, a family drama. Its protagonist is Park Gang-du (Song), a slacker with partially blonde hair who works at a snack shop with his father Park Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong). His life is thrown into chaos when the Creature kidnaps his daughter Park Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung). Gang-du teams up with his father and siblings — professional archer Park Nam-joo (Bae Doona) and disgruntled former political activist Park Nam-il (Park Hae-il) — to rescue Hyun-Seo.
Writer-director Bong Joon-ho excels at using the dysfunctional nature of the Park family as a way to change the spirit of his film. The scene where the Park family’s extreme outpouring of grief for Hyun-seo (who they think is dead) turns into physical comedy is justly famous for being a dramatic tonal shift. But my favorite example of this film’s ability to shapeshift thematically comes near the middle of its story. Gang-du’s siblings have been constantly belittling him for his stupidity, and Hee-bong has finally told them to stop. Hee-bong gives a poignant monologue about how his failures as a father have blighted Gang-du’s life. It’s a moving speech and, in a more conventional film, the tone of this scene would be emotional and possibly end in Gang-du getting a hug from his siblings. But instead, Bong adds a layer of cynical comedy to this scene by having Nam-joo and Nam-il sleep through most of their dad’s monologue. Even Hee-bong’s monologue contains a moment of weird humor. The fact that this scene — which goes from darkly humorous to emotional to darkly humorous again — is followed by an action sequence in which the family has to fight off the Creature is proof that there is little that Bong can’t do when it comes to changing the tone of a scene.
The Host might seem to be a film full of jarring whiplashes due to its ability to change tones. But Bong avoids alienating the audience through his ability to compress key points into brief scenes which could be expanded into entire movies. The scene mentioned above could be a feature-length movie about a family hashing it out à la August: Osage County (2013), but instead it gets its point across in less than five minutes. A later, brief scene of Hyun-seo and a little boy named Se-joo (Lee Dong-ho) hiding from the Creature could have been expanded into an entire movie about two children coping with death à la Forbidden Games (1952) or Grave of the Fireflies (1988). By compressing his rich ideas into brief yet potent scenes, Bong is able to keep things moving at a steady narrative pace while still having the fascinating shifts in tone for which he would become internationally famous for in his later films, especially Parasite (2019).
Over the course of the last decade, Korean films have become very popular. This is due in large part to increased globalization, new technologies which make it easier than ever before to watch content from other countries, and the sheer brilliance of those films’ storytelling. But what many of those films do better than many of their competitors is that they maintain a thrilling sense of unpredictability. A New Korean film can shock you with a narrative twist, like Bong’s good friend and collaborator Park Chan-wook did in Oldboy (2003). It can pull off misdirections which turn out to be true, like in Save the Green Planet! (2003). But more often than not, a good New Korean film can impress you with its ability to fold in disparate elements such as mayhem, humor, and heart to enrich whatever genre its filmmaker is exploring. Few Korean filmmakers are in as firm command of that ability as Bong, and few of his films demonstrate that skill as clearly as The Host.
The Host will be screened at IU Cinema on April 5 as part of our Korea Remixed and Science on Screen programming. There will be a post-film discussion entitled “Adapt, Mutate, Survive: The Human Toll on Our Biological Environment” after the screening.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.