South Korean cinema has exploded over the last few years, with several of the country's young filmmakers consistently turning out top tier films that continue to surprise audiences on every continent. After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006, horror flick 'The Host' went on to smash box office records in its native country and remains the highest grossing South Korean film of all time.
The film tells the story of a family in South Korea whose lives are turned upside down when a mutant creature emerges from the Han River and begins attacking everyone in sight. The dysfunctional clan consists of Gang-du (Kang-ho Song), his young daughter Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko), his elderly father (Hie-bong Byeon), his uptight brother (Hae-il Park), and his sister (Du-na Bae), a masterclass archery champion. As the creature retreats with a full belly, it snatches Gang-du's daughter and takes her back to its home in the sewers. When the family discovers that Hyun-seo is still alive, they stage a daring rescue in the face of the creature and a panicking government agency.
In spite of its genre-bending tone, surprisingly, 'The Host' manages to maintain a steady, innate flow to its story. The performances are endearing and hilarious at the same time. The film seems to pride itself in the one thing that so many other horror flicks have forgotten in this age of CG realism -- credible character development. I found myself legitimately attached to this family of misfits, hoping against all odds that they would survive. When the creature lumbered their way, I grabbed the arms of my chair and held my breath -- no small feat for a horror junkie like myself.
Quieter moments between the family members are equally believable and charming -- so much so that I even found myself wondering if some of the actors were related. Their chemistry is wonderful and I was reminded of the love evident amidst the dysfunction in 'Little Miss Sunshine.' To its slight detriment, the script for 'The Host' does follow a few tangential sub-plots a bit too far for my taste, but generally the film stays quite focused despite everything that's going on.
So what about the creature? In a word, it's intimidating. The film's lower budget CG doesn't always hold up to the pristine standards of Hollywood effects, but the filmmakers fill in the technical gaps with a logical realism that's really quite breathtaking. When the beast first launches onto the screen -- attacking every fleeing pedestrian in its reach -- it moves so naturally and effortlessly that it becomes intrinsically frightening simply because it feels so authentic. When the creature slows to a crawl, its expressive face lets the audience know that it's thinking and deciding what to do next. And every time it exploded into a run, the beast seemed so inescapable that the resulting tension was enough to distract me from any visible seams in the special effects.
Critical praise for 'The Host' has been overwhelmingly positive -- it currently boasts a whopping 92% on Rotten Tomatoes and has received an avalanche of good press and audience word-of-mouth. Here's hoping that the film's success might serve as a wake-up call to American horror filmmakers -- despite its limited budget and seemingly insurmountable production trials, 'The Host' easily eclipses the vast majority of horror films that have been released in the States over the last decade.
I should mention that there has been a minor backlash against the film from those who feel that it is anti-American (American pollution and neglect is what causes the mutation). Director Bong Joon-Ho has gone on the record on several occasions to say that while the film does level mild criticisms against US policies, it's not intended to be anti-American in any way. For my own part, I don't think it's offensively critical at all and I probably wouldn't have even thought of this if I hadn't read about it first.
At the end of the day, I wouldn't go so far as to say that 'The Host' is "on par with 'Jaws'" (a Harry Knowles quote slapped on the front of the case), but fans of horror, comedy, and foreign films are sure to find a lot to love in the dark confines of this creature's sewers. If you didn't have a chance to see 'The Host' in theaters, don't miss the opportunity in high-def.
Hitting both HD DVD and Blu-ray concurrently, Magnolia Home Entertainment has granted both high-def editions of 'The Host' with identical 1080p/VC-1 transfers, and both look extremely good.
A palette of bold colors immediately caught my attention and bring the film's South Korean locations to life. Black levels are also deep and add a welcome depth to the image. But it's the impeccable fine object detail that really wowed me -- you can see every facial pore, every misplaced hair, and the texture of every grimy smear on the actors. The picture is impressive from beginning to end and even stands tall when the lumbering CG creation is on-screen in the bright sun. The HD presentation does make the creature look slightly disjointed from the natural elements on screen (think of the way the CG sometimes stands out in 'King Kong'), but it's only because of the increased scrutiny the sharpness brings.
The only minor issues I had with the transfer were the result of directorial decisions and/or limitations of the production -- contrast is intentionally overexposed during day-lit scenes and there is some noise on a few fleshtones in dark shots (an effect that appears on Gang-du's face at one point when he shines a flashlight around the sewer near the end of the film -- but it's a result of the cameras used, not the transfer itself).
But never mind those nitpicks -- 'The Host' has a great picture that is sure to excite fans and that will hopefully attract some newcomers to the film in its high-def debut.
Unfortunately all things are not equal in the audio department. While the Blu-ray edition of 'The Host' boasts three sound mixes, this HD DVD only gets two -- and unfortunately it's the superior uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround mix that didn't make the cut.
The remaining two tracks are included on both high-def editions of 'The Host' -- a DTS-HD 5.1 surround track (1.5 Mbps) and a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix (448 kbps).
In a direct comparison of all three tracks, the Blu-ray's PCM track clearly takes the prize, delivering crisper voices, deeper ambiance, and boomier bass than either of two tracks included here. That said, the DTS-HD track included here puts up a strong fight, and judged on its own merits is a very strong track. By contrast, the standard Dolby Digital track is definite let down, with tinny voices and peaking issues. (Note that both tracks included on this disc come in two flavors an English dub and an original Korean language mix.)
Looking at the DTS-HD track, dialogue is natural and only falters in the English dub (where the sound is clearly limited by the studio recording). The surround channels get a nice workout and create a suitably convincing soundfield that allowed me to immerse myself in the chaos and enjoy the crunching bones, shattering glass, and mingled screams typical of a horror film audio mix. Likewise, the sound effects used during the creature attacks are very impressive -- you can hear its skin squishing against the ground, and its feet crushing through a variety of materials.
Channel movement is occasionally stocky, but it's rarely a blaring distraction. In fact, the only major downside here has more to do with the quality of the sound design than the technical prowess of this DTS-HD track -- some of the effects sound canned and drift intentionally towards the comical.
Still, all things considered -- even with the missing PCM track -- this is an above average audio offering that should satisfy most fans, except perhaps audiophiles who insist on the best bells and whistles available.
Although there are a good deal of supplements included in this HD DVD edition of 'The Host,' sadly Magnolia didn't see fit to port over all of the content from the previously released 2-disc Collector's Edition DVD.Missing in action are a massive list of featurettes -- "Bong Joon-Ho's Direction," "Set Design," "Sound Effects," "Composing the Music," "Conceptual Artwork: The Birth," "Building the Creature: The WETA Workshop," "Why Did It Do That?," "The Crew," "The Staff," "The Production Team," "Film Production in Korea," "Casting Tapes," "The Extras Behind the Scenes," "Monster Appeal," "Additional Cast Interviews," "Extras Casting Tapes," and "Saying Goodbye."
With so much additional content available, it's really irksome that Magnolia didn't see fit to add a second disc to this HD DVD release. I just don't understand the justification behind punishing fans for picking the film up on high-def -- especially since it's more expensive than the 2-disc DVD.
On the bright side, all of the main supplements from the 2-disc Collector's Edition DVD have made it to this HD DVD edition, and on their own merits they still add up to an above average supplements package.
First up is an engaging English-language commentary from director Bong Joon-Ho, where he candidly discusses many different elements of the film and displays a likeable fascination with cinema. He talks about the difficulties behind the production, the limited budget, and the challenges of South Korean filmmaking. An uncredited friend in the room keeps the director moving when he gets stuck on one subject for too long, but also inadvertently adds a welcome conversational air to the commentary. All in all, Bong Joon-Ho provides an interesting glimpse into foreign productions outside of the Hollywood system and really gained my respect for his vision, his perseverance, and his ultimate accomplishment.
The first video-based supplement is "The Making of the Host" (28 minutes), which is divided into four sections -- a standard production featurette called "Making of the Host with Director Bong Joon-Ho" (10 minutes), an entertaining look at a tough shoot called "Memories of the Sewer" (10 minutes), a series of "Storyboards" (3 minutes) set to music from the film, and a glimpse at the "Physical Special Effects" (5 minutes). All of these featurettes are worth your time, but "Memories of the Sewer" was easily my favorite. The cast and crew received tetanus shots, but were also secretly slipped a cocktail inoculation to prevent them from getting dangerous tapeworms in the sewer.
After that you'll find another collection of featurettes dedicated to "The Creature" (50 minutes). This one is comprised of four sections that chart the creation of the monster -- "Designing the Creature" (12 minutes), "Animating the Creature" (10 minutes), "Puppet Animatronics" (7 minutes), and "Bringing the Creature to Life" (21 minutes). The section is thorough, but not exhaustive -- unfortunately key elements are missing from the standard DVD that leave out a lot of interesting information.
"The Cast" is separated into two featurettes -- "The Family: Main Cast Interviews" (4 minutes) and "Training the Actors" (5 minutes). Based on what we see of them here, it seems the film's actors are as endearing as their on-screen personas.
A lengthy "Gag Reel" (8 minutes) is more than the usual assortment of bad takes -- it includes altered special effects, post production interview bloopers, and more fun from the CG department.
A group of "Deleted Scenes" (8 minutes) is above average as well, and I thought each could have easily been retained in the film. Some of the cut scenes at the end even feature extra shots of the creature.
Finally, the film's "Korean Trailer" is also available. Like all of the other video-based features listed above, it is presented in 480i/p only.
'The Host' is a truly original take on the tired-and-true creature feature. Handling its characters and story with a balance of compasion and humor, it manages to be both a scary and affecting flick at the same time. This HD DVD edition of the film features an excellent video transfer and a solid DTS-HD track. The only real disappointment here is that Magnolia hasn't ported over the full suite of supplements originally included on the 2-disc Collector's Edition DVD. Still, the remaining extras are quite strong, and as an overall package this is still a great release.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.