Reviewing a Korean Movie.

I watch a lot of foreign films, particularly those from South Korea, and I have noticed that when I recommend foreign movies to my friends some question my choices. They ask what was so funny, or sad, or they even completely miss aspects of the plot. This is somewhat understandable with the distraction of trying to read subtitles while also trying to watch the flow of the action, but I have occasionally noticed this with British movies where subtitles don’t come into play. That’s when I had a small epiphany and realized that with certain movies, particularly big blockbuster action type movies or those that fall within our cultural norms,  we either don’t need to know background references or we already know them through our upbringing and regional media coverage etc. We watch and just know what is happening or why a character acts, or reacts, in a certain way. We don’t need someone to explain it to us, we just know.

This doesn’t always hold true for movies from outside our sphere of cultural knowledge, it’s not instinctive and we have to work harder to understand the nuances of the film. Some knowledge can be gained by learning a bit of history and the traditions of the country, or by watching media reports, or living there etc. but in some senses someone not from that culture will never view a movie in the same way as the person from that culture. So does that mean we shouldn’t watch foreign films or that we won’t like them or understand them? No, of course not, it is just something to be aware of, particularly when discussing said movies.

As an example I’ll use the Korean movie, The Host, from 2006 as this was one of the first Korean movies I watched. The title in Korean is Gwoemul, the literal translation of which is ‘monster’, which in some ways makes more sense to me than ‘host’, but this may well be that the Director was deliberating trying to say something to English speakers. If you watch the movie you can see why both titles may each be appropriate in their own way. To me the word ‘monster’ as the title can mean both the actual monster, or the actions of the Korean and US governments, military, and bureaucracies, which is why I prefer it.

The movie draws inspiration from two things that actually happened. A Korean mortician working for the United States military did indeed dump an unknown (said to be large) amount of Formaldehyde down a drain into the Han River. This happened in 2,000 and was in the Korean news resulting in many being upset with the US military. (For those who don’t know, the US retains a large number of troops in South Korea, and has agreements and rights within the purview of treaties signed by both governments. This sometimes leads to uneasiness on the part of everyday citizens, although most Koreans acknowledge the presence of said troops as a deterrent to North Korean aggression, and everyone I met in Korea loved Americans. Also note the movie was filmed in 2006.)

The second was the discovery of some deformed fish in the Han River, with S shaped spines. I cannot find anything that tries to link the two together, but they were put together to form the kernel from which the movie sprang.

The Han River plays an integral part in the movie, just like it does in the life of those who live in Seoul. It is big, it is really big, and it slices through the middle of Seoul. Many bridges cross the river, and huge numbers of people cross by cars, buses, and trains. It is also where many go to relax and play, with there being many public parks and green spaces that line the river. (There is a statue of the monster in one such park and every now and then it moves its mouth and roars. When I was there Korean parents were letting their kids stand in the mouth to take photos, and then laughing as the kids freaked out when it moved.) In some ways the Han River is the heart of Seoul and an attack on it would be a giant blow to many Koreans. Is that why the movie was set in and around the river, and particularly in the sewers and under the bridges? Maybe, I don’t know, but when the government tries to make the Han River and its riverbanks an exclusion zone and want to use chemical warfare against the monster the people begin to rebel.

It is hard to classify the movie as it can be seen as a horror movie, a monster or ‘creature feature’, a melodrama, a satire, or a family movie in the sense that it revolves around a family and their interactions with the monster and government bureaucracy surrounding the appearance of the monster.  In some ways it can also be seen as a kidnapping movie, as the family probably wouldn’t have the same feelings about the monster if it hadn’t taken their youngest member. This is a film that revolves around ordinary people stepping outside who and what they are, a fairly dysfunctional family in reality, to come together to get their family member back. No superheroes or action heroes here, just everyday people.

Eating together has a significance and importance in Korean life that is hard to explain to others, and so the scenes of eating have meaning beyond what we might see. The belief in ghosts and the providing food for the dead at certain times of the year are also outside most of our cultural experiences, so the nuances of the feast where the granddaughter appears have meanings that non Koreans probably won’t understand. So what might appear to be slow or down times to us in the movie probably have cultural meanings that are lost to us.

The movie incorporates humor in sudden and quick bursts that in some ways shock us and then make us refocus on the drama, just as in real life something can make us laugh even when we are sad. It also showcases some underlying digs at practices that still can occur in Korea, such as bribery, unwarranted sueing, uninterested and unlistening police, bureaucratic inefficiency, and the two boys need to loot for food. (This last one, Seori, was practised by the kidnapped girl’s father when he was a boy and so leads to perhaps why he adopts the younger boy at the end of the movie.)

There are more things I see each time I watch the movie as I learn and understand more about Korean culture, but does that mean you won’t enjoy the movie if you don’t know much about Korea? No, The Host stands as a good movie no matter where you’re from, it just might have more meaning the more you know.

It was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006 to much acclaim. It was one of the best reviewed films of 2007, scoring 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. It set a box office record in Korea and won Best Film at the Asian Film Awards and Blue Dragon Film Awards. It was ranked as one of the Top films of 2007 by Metacritic.

You can watch it on Netflix where it only has two stars which I think is undeserved. I’ve tried not to give away too much of the plot so if you haven’t seen it already give it a watch, and let me know what you think in the comments.


Have a great day everyone.


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