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The Host

I have this theory about why manga fans would year after year swear by that art form's superiority to American comics. When those otaku first started hammering at my sensibilities, we were only getting the best of what had been done. To be fair, I was guilty of that same attitude when it came to British television. We had not yet seen the drek.

Get ready for a wave of raving about Korean horror films, because this summer saw the mainstream DVD release of a definite high-point. Albeit with some special effects done in the U.S., The Host creates a new spin on the old-fashioned rubber-suit monster idea, slimy and utterly satisfying.

As the director's commentary explains, The Host started from an actual incident at a military base in Korea. Added to writer/director Joon-ho Bong's desire to do a modern monster movie, this real contamination of the Han River spawns one grotesque mutant fish/squid/whoknows thing that helps bring a man-child (Kang-ho Song) to adulthood and responsibility, but at a terrible price.

Though the DVD defaults to an English dubbing track, the film makes a little more sense in the subtitled version over the original Korean soundtrack. Its dialogue is a little tighter this way, more precise without the strange conversation fillers that Asian dubbers always seem to require. That precision helps with the obvious cultural differences, but also shows what a good writer Bong is.

He's a clever scenarist, dropping little plot clues in to the first few minutes of the film that pay off throughout. Yet they're so subtle it really takes a second viewing to appreciate them. He's also good at weaving in his subtext. Though the film looks to start off as a condemnation of the U.S. military, Bong has bigger fish to fry, allowing Americans and Koreans to be both heroic and villainous. Except it's not so much villainous as tragically ignorant.

The monster, however, is far from misunderstood. It's a spry eating machine, and Bong stages its first attack with a comedic flair. You'll laugh even as you start getting grossed out.

Aside from the standard commentary, the disc offers an unintentionally funny extra. Labeled as a director looking back, the featurette consists of Bong apologizing to all the cast and extras whose work got cut from the film. Okay, so it's kind of endearing; what American director would think to do that?

Here's hoping that Bong never loses that thoughtfulness. Maybe we need to make sure he never becomes an American director, instead continuing to make films like The Host that will convince everyone Korean cinema is a force to be reckoned with.

Derek McCaw

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