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The Host: A Monster 19 Years in the Making

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The sun is shining on the banks of the Han River. It's a beautiful autumn afternoon, and people are enjoying the day with their loved ones. Some play with their dogs, some listen to music, some complain to each other for the umpteenth time despite having gone there to relax. Some, like Park Gang Du, are walking home with their daughters. But this calm is interrupted by something nobody could possibly ever expect: from the river emerges a dark creature, as big as a bus and as fast as a slightly oversized Ferrari. And then comes chaos. This is the kind of experience that can change your life forever, if you actually get away from it healthy enough to talk about it.

The Han River is an important cultural symbol in Korea. Korean's dynamic economic growth from the 1960s to 1990s was dubbed the "Miracle on the Han River". The Han River has inspired novelists (like Jo Jung Rae), served as a background for many films and dramas (Ode to the Han River), and become a romantic destination for couples. There are also a lot of things sinking in the Han River, namely people, as it's a favorite spot for committing suicide, and many gang fights and murders have happened somewhere along the banks of Korea's most famous waters. But something rising out of the Han River is what led a certain young student to become a film director.

It was 1987, and the student was in his third year of high school, preparing for the college entrance exams. Living in Chamshil near the river, one day the daydreaming teenager took a long look out the window and saw a tentacle emerging from the river's banks. It was a strange creature, something he had never seen before. The young man was already harboring dreams of becoming a director, and that image instantly became his dream project, his most ambitious and craziest idea: a monster film. In Korea, those were the days when comedian-turned-actor and director Shim Hyung Rae (D-War) was driving the genre to its last legs with monster flicks centering on men in hilarious costumes, awkward miniatures, and even stranger stories. But that young man wanted to make a monster film anyway, moved by that single, life-changing instant. His name? Bong Joon Ho.

In 1990, Bong Joon Ho was a young student who drew cartoons for his school newspaper and worked various part-time jobs at film companies. Although his major at Yonsei University was sociology, his lifetime dream was to become a filmmaker. After finishing college, he enrolled in the Korean Film Academy from which he graduated with a short film called Incoherence. The short won him awards overseas and great acclaim at home. He became one of the hot new kids on the block, creating a lot of expectation in the industry, but he didn't jump the gun. Instead, Bong slowly climbed towards the upper ranks of the industry. In 2000 he made his big splash in Chungmuro with Barking Dogs Never Bite, an off-kilter black comedy which received great praise, despite flopping at the box office.

In 2001, right after the commercial failure of his first film, Bong began writing the script for what would launch his career into superstardom, the 2003 masterpiece Memories of Murder. Bong planned to work with Cheongeorahm Films once again for his third feature film, so he went to his good friend producer Choi Yong Bae and presented him with what was probably the craziest idea Choi had ever heard. Bong brought with him Photoshopped pictures, shots of the Han River with the Loch Ness Monster pasted on them, and said: "There's no story. It's just a monster and that's it." Recognizing Bong's talent and passion, Choi eventually agreed, much to the young director's surprise. The Host was born.

Bong began pre-production with the working title "The River" and a concept that was simple and slightly absurd. What if a monster appeared on the banks of the Han River? Although Japan's kaiju (monster) film culture has created a huge niche even in the West, its Korean counterpart never really had any impact on the public, both at home and abroad. When one of the most talented filmmakers in the country announced he was making a ten billion won monster film, a lot of people had only one question in mind: why?

Japanese and American monster films might have creatures the size of a building, but The Host has a little mutant rugrat not even the size of a bus. Japanese and American monster films build the tension before the big appearance, The Host shows us the creature after a mere 15 minutes into the movie. Japanese and American monster films deal with incredible men trying to save the world, The Host's heroes are members of a dysfunctional family. That should be enough to indicate that Bong's latest film is not exactly your average monster film.

When Bong started seriously thinking about The Host, he was worried Korean film technology was not up to the standards the film required - or that it would cost too much. Bong first enlisted WETA Design, the New Zealand special effects company that worked on Lord of the Rings. After WETA accepted the offer, American mainstays like Creative Workshop and The Orphanage were also added to the project. The film is clearly not all about the monster, but it was something they definitely had to deal with. You can't just put some fur on two assistant directors and let them prance around pretending to be a monster, can you? Out of the final 11 billion won budget, a whopping 4 billion was spent on the monster's design, from textures and animatics, to designing every single body part and finding the right actor for its voice, which, believe it or not, is Oh Dal Soo of Forbidden Quest and A Bittersweet Life. It took more than two and a half years to cast the creature, starting in December 2003 when the first creature sketches were drawn by designer Jang Hee Cheol, to May 2005 when Weta and Orphanage put in the finishing touches of CG. Bong chose from thousands of different sketches, so the creature essentially went through an "audition" with 1500-to-1 odds, not exactly the easiest of roles.

The first designs Jang brought to the table looked like a combination between a rat and a fish, but what Bong always stressed was realism, not how scary or big the monster was. He didn't want to make a monster film per se; he wanted to use the creature as a plot device carrying a certain meaning for the film's protagonists - the family and the Han River itself, the yin and yang of romantic, poetic beauty mixed with pollution and hidden dangers. Considering the money spent on special effects (half the budget), many people think The Host is an SFX blockbuster, but that's not the case. The film has that distinct brand of humor which lies dormant in all of Bong's films, and is much more concerned with realism, both in form and storytelling.

The Host is full of current political and social issues, which help paint the progression of the film, but they never overtake the story. The eldest brother in the family, Gang Du (Song Kang Ho), is not a man in high places, or someone doing a briefing about measures to counter the problem. He is the man who asks what kind of sauce you want with your instant noodles. When a calamity disrupts the everyday life of people like him, it is hard to even imagine the repercussions. The viewers become one with Gang Du, as they can relate to his family's problems, and the film indeed focuses on the family's hardships. In some ways, The Host is a road movie going in circles. Despite being quite different on the outside, Bong's films have always had something in common; they all start from a black comedy setup and then adopt tropes from several genres to create an eclectic mix. And when it comes to subjects, Bong always seems to deal with strange creatures living on this little lonely planet: monsters, (barking) dogs, and most importantly, men.

There are no genius scientists or superheroes to save the nation with their might. Instead, this film's heroes only gain strength and courage when the most precious thing they have (the family itself) suffers because of the creature, and then courage comes even into the most fragile of them all, daddy Gang Du. You could simply see him as a fool, but as the drama starts flowing, he goes through many changes. The Gang Du you see doing pathetic things at the food stall and the Gang Du you see during his desperate struggle are two different people. For Park Hae Il's slacker brother character, Bong had a real-life model to follow, a good-looking college classmate who constantly complained about everything and everyone, the classic example of a highly educated unemployed man, if you will. Bae Du Na (Barking Dogs Never Bite) plays the most unique character, the sister who is insulated from other people but always solving the little wars within the family.

Triumphing at Cannes with a long standing ovation, The Host opened in Korea hoping not to disappoint viewers with sky-high expectations. With the biggest opening of all time over 620 screens nationwide, the film became the real monster. In a mere month, it was already staring King and The Clown's record in the eyes, and eventually closed its stupefying run at 13 million tickets, making it the highest-grossing Korean film to date. The Host was quickly picked up by several important film festivals, touring dozens of countries all over the world, making Bong Joon Ho one of the most famous Korean directors in the world stage. Even Hollywood started raising its eyebrows, and many offers to direct English-speaking films came to Bong's table, offers he refused.

Bong has finally fulfilled his childhood dream, the dream which gave him the confidence to become one of the best directors in Korea. Mental strength helped him endure the ridicule of his peers when he announced his monster film project, and luck, which every good director needs, led him to the right people (everyone from Song Kang Ho, Byun Hee Bong, Bae Du Na, and Park Hae Il down to the young Ko Ah Sung). Now Bong is truly ready to hit the world stage with his upcoming project The Snow Train. Produced by Park Chan Wook's Moho Films and adapted from the French comic Le Transperceneige, his next monster will be entirely shot in English with a Hollywood-level budget.

Dreams sometimes seem too hard to achieve, making it easier to give up when things get rough. Even for someone like Bong, his dream took 19 years to materialize, a dream big enough to leave behind most people. But he made it, and 13 million people showed him it is never too late to dream if you truly believe. And, of course, if you're madly talented like Bong Joon Ho, the true monster of Chungmuro.

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Published December 19, 2006

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