Film Review: The Host (괴물) at TKFF

Courtesy of Toronto Korean Film Festival
Courtesy of Toronto Korean Film Festival

The Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF) held a free screening on June 1st (last Saturday) of the Korean film, The Host (괴물). Now I’d seen the film before while I was living in Korea and I liked it so much I bought the DVD (the real one, not a knockoff you can buy at lots of different subways stations in Seoul) but since I’d never reviewed it… off I went to Innis Town Hall to catch the free screening that TKFF generously provided Toronto with. Plus, everything is better on a big screen AND there was free bibimbap (비빔밥, mixed rice & veggies with Korean hot sauce/paste). Mmm… gochujang (고추장, Korean hot paste) makes everything better. But I’m getting off-topic – this is a film review, not a food article. ^^

The Host is an intriguing film. It’s not often that you see a monster flick that also has political commentary. While it’s classified as a horror flick, I think of it as more of an intelligent monster film. But that’s probably because it’s not all blood and guts… there’s actually a story, including some digs at the American military and the Korean government.

The Plot

**Warning: Spoiler Alert**

An American pathologist stationed in Korea (in the American military) orders his assistant, a Korean, to dump a ridiculous number of bottles of formaldehyde down the sink because they were dirty. Fast forward a couple of years and a gigantic monster appears in the Han River and starts attacking people. Park Gang-du (the main character) and his father run a snack bar by the Han River and are caught up in the attack. While appearing a little slow, Gang-du shows bravery – along with an off-duty American soldier (see, they’re not all bad) in trying to stop the monster’s initial attack but then the horror truly starts when the monster captures Gang-du’s daughter, Hyun-seo, and drags her away to its lair in the sewers.

The Korean government and American military step in and quarantine all those who were present at the initial attack. At first, it appears that the military is going to fight back but then they back off and simply disinfect the river. Meanwhile, Gang-du and his family – his father, Hee-bong, whom he lives with; his sister, Nam-joo, a bronze medalist archer; and his brother, Nam-il, an alcoholic unemployed university graduate – after briefly believing Hyun-seo is dead, fight to escape and find her. 

Meanwhile, Hyun-seo is trapped in a nightmare with the monster, dead bodies and the bones of his meals. Finally, she has some company and perhaps hope, when one of the bodies – a young boy – that the monster coughs up turns out not to be dead.

Without giving away too many spoilers – you really should watch the film – the rest of the film chronicles the family’s struggle to find and rescue Hyun-seo and her fight to stay alive. All the while racing against the clock of when the government will release the “Agent Yellow”.

My Thoughts

It’s an interesting film. The main character is seriously (and obviously) flawed but while he makes serious mistakes – not counting the shots correctly is right at the top of the list – he’s also single-minded in both his determination to save his daughter and his love for her. The portrayal of the American military/government as uncaring, domineering and ultimately responsible for the monster is interesting, but for me, the portrayal of the Korean government as ineffectual, under the thumb of the U.S. and open to bribes stood out more. It’s one thing to take a poke at the “other” – in this case, the U.S. – but taking issue with problems within your own country, especially in a blockbuster monster flick is intriguing to say the least. 

Most characters come off as weak, inept, or as caricatures of a stereotype – from the government official who was open to a bribe to the younger, unemployed brother who knew how to make molotov cocktails (student protester anyone). Not all have flaws though, the strength of Hyun-Seo during her captivity with the monster shows a depth of character not seen in most of the others.

Whether you are a horror film lover or interested in the complicated relationship between Korea and the U.S., The Host is a film well worth watching. There are moments that will make you jump, moments that will touch your emotions (yeah, I teared up briefly) and moments that will make you think. But for all that, don’t think that’s it an overly complicated film, it’s not. Even the political commentary is easy to see – “Agent Yellow” anyone? If you haven’t seen this Korean blockbuster, watch it! 

Toronto Korean Film Festival
Toronto Korean Film Festival

The TKFF Screening

I love watching films at the Toronto Korean Film Festival. As always, the lovely staff and volunteers of the TKFF were organized, friendly and helpful. I’d come to expect it from last year and the advance free screening of The Host didn’t disappoint. Seriously, I can’t think of a better place to watch a film or experience Korean cinema for the first time. Don’t believe me? They were so friendly last year that I’ve become friends with a few of them. Come on out! Don’t be shy!

Mixing the bibimbap
Mixing the bibimbap

Oh, and did I mention there was free bibimbap? I didn’t realize it was possible to squeeze so much yummy deliciousness into a small paper cup! The perfect way to cap off the afternoon screening. All in all, I can’t imagine why more people didn’t take advantage of this wonderful opportunity – a free screening of a blockbuster film, free food and great people. Did you miss it? Don’t worry, you can still come to TKFF. The actual festival is June 6-8, this Thursday-Saturday.

Just the facts

  • What: Toronto Korean Film Festival
  • When: June 6-8, 2013
  • Where: Innis Town Hall (2 Sussex Ave – St. George subway station)
  • Why: Great Korean films of course!
    • “Fire Friday” Opening Party: 6 Degrees Nightclub (2335 Yonge Street)
  • How much
    • Single film: $8.00
    • Full pass: $30.00
    • Opening party: $6.29 ($10 at the door)
    • Opening party VIP booth: $250
  • Tickets: Buy them online
  • TKFF on Facebook

ATK Magazine is proud to be a media sponsor of the Toronto Korean Film Festival. However, any opinions expressed are entirely mine.

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

2 thoughts on “Film Review: The Host (괴물) at TKFF

  • June 9, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    Thanks for this, Cindy. The last horror flick I watched was The Exorcist (when it was first released in the theatres back in the ’70s. I have not watched a horror movie since. Everyone has told me to watch The Host, but I have always declined, even against the laughing admonishment of my cowardice. Now, I will use your review as yet another justification for why I will not watch it…sentences like “trapped in a nightmare with the monster, dead bodies and the bones of his meals” was enough ammunition for me. Thanks for the plot and your insightful thoughts, ergo I will pass on the movie.

    • June 9, 2013 at 2:14 pm

      Oh no, I hate that my review has kept you away from a good film, even while I’m happy that you found it insightful. It is truly worth watching. And in terms of scariness, it’s more of a monster flick along the lines of Jurassic Park than Alien – startling more than truly scary.

      Although I understand your aversion to horror flicks as I often hide my eyes behind my hands while doing so… not necessarily the best trait in a film reviewer. 🙂

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