March 2007

Arts & Letters

The host with the most

By Adrian Martin
Bong Joon-Ho’s ‘The Host’

Bae Doo-na, with her large nose that would never be allowed past Hollywood's cosmeticians, her crazy eyes and her general physique - seemingly stalled between gawky adolescence and alluringly troubled adulthood - is a cult star in her home country of Korea, and beloved throughout various parts of Asia. She effortlessly projects innocence and kookiness, punk defiance and melancholy. She lets rip as a singer in the Japanese teen movie Linda, Linda, Linda (great title, that); she skulks around a surreal Korean metropolis populated by humans rather too fond of their pets in Barking Dogs Never Bite. In a documentary on the role of women in Korean cinema, she slouches against a wall, super-cool, and drawls, "In my next film, I would like to kiss a woman."

Why isn't she a star in the West, beyond being idolised by aficionados who adore all things Eastern? Many Australians like to consider themselves au fait with Asian culture - I once heard an academic straight-facedly declare that she had a special understanding of Japan, having grown up watching Kimba the White Lion and The Samurai - but this hides a general indifference, certainly in the case of film. Despite an occasional hit touted as the epochal ‘breakthrough crossover', such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or the historical spectaculars of Zhang Yimou, Asian films have a hard time finding a berth in our cinemas, whether commercial or art-house. The resistance to their otherness is still intense.

In this, as in so many things, we merely follow the US. A recent online poll ranked Jackie Chan as the forty-first most popular movie star in the world. The poll was heavily weighted towards the West, of course, and loaded with American bias. A Chan retrospective at the Queensland Art Gallery in February reminded fans of the greatness of his Hong Kong work, from 1978's Drunken Master to 2004's New Police Story - and brought home how dissatisfying, by comparison, even large commercial successes like the Rush Hour films are. Chan's attempt to conquer the American market, it seems, can never happen on his own terms: he will always be cast alongside an American (white or black) who inevitably dilutes his humour and cramps his style. Where are the surreal flights of fancy, the childlike comedy, the breathtaking physical work of his Hong Kong masterpieces?

Chan and his collaborators perfected the storyline for an action-comedy in Drunken Master. No matter how many exacting skills the hero picks up along the way, or how much bone-breaking training he endures, the climax demands a special ingredient: some extra bit of magic or soul, some splendid moment of inspired improvisation, some overcoming of inner doubt or fear, will come into play when the final life-or-death battle arrives.

In the new Korean film The Host, Bae Doo-na plays Nam-joo, a bronze medallist in archery whose nerve sometimes falters when it comes to firing the final, decisive arrow. Soon after the public humiliation of her failure to win the gold medal, she and her family are swept into a strange adventure: it will be up to these ordinary citizens to fight, tooth and nail, an extremely powerful and monstrous creature that has emerged from the Han River. Eventually, Nam-joo will have to take up her mighty bow and arrow again, in a clinch that allows no second chance ...

The ad for The Host in my local newspaper is a tiny box inside the listing for an inner-city art-house cinema. The film's brilliant director, Bong Joon-ho (the twisted mind behind Barking Dogs Never Bite), is listed as a special guest at the premiere, but there is no image of Bae Doo-na and her mighty weapon. I fear for the commercial fate of this movie, which is one of the greatest of the year. It is a rousing action-adventure, a chilling sci-fi parable and an inspired comedy - and that may be too many genres for a Western audience, although such a potpourri is par for the course in mainstream Asian cinema. It is also, in Korea and elsewhere, a blockbuster, an enormous popular success.

In a just world, The Host would be every bit the box-office hit here that Crouching Tiger was, and would instantly be regarded as vastly superior to the usual, lacklustre Denzel Washington or Harrison Ford action-thrillers. The film has a visceral kick, an exhilarating high, to match that of seeing Jaws on a big screen during its first release. Except that Bong is a much more interesting and intricate director than Spielberg will ever be, and the collaboration with Bae adds a dimension that no American blockbuster can even approach. Over just a few years, Bong has mastered a uniquely kinky approach to genre cinema: taking a template (soap opera, police thriller, sci-fi horror) and then leaping, in the blink of a cut, between starkly contrasting moods.

The Host aims at the target that Jackie Chan has coveted for so long: a takeover of Western cinema, an imperious appropriation of its entertainment codes. With one major difference: where Chan can be a little obsequious in his love for the Hollywood classics, Bong swings in with a critique of America that makes non-American audiences want to raise the rafters with applause. Where Chan uses a Crocodile Dundee-type plot for his passage into the American market - casting himself as the fish out of water who comes to save the day in a nasty American city, humanising it in the process, as in Rumble in the Bronx - Bong begins his story baldly. The monstrous ‘host' springs to life because a scary-looking American in a lab coat orders the dumping of toxic chemicals down a sink. And that's only the beginning of the anti-American allegory: there are the official cover-ups we glean from TV broadcasts chattering in the background, the media-fed panic about an imaginary virus that serves a suddenly declared "state of exception", and the brutal military intervention by US troops during the finale.

The most frightening scenes in The Host have more than a touch of David Cronenberg, particularly those with poor Gong-du (Song Kang-ho), who's seen too much of the truth, strapped down and gagged in a sinister makeshift hospital, primed for lobotomy. For all its political-big-picture savvy, though, this is a film about a family. And a rather ordinary family at that: the undertow of melancholy comes from the fact that Bong's stories are populated by broken families, orphans, loners, under-achievers, depressives. Not that he makes a big deal about it; this is simply the mundane, basic reality of the world, and it provides humour as much as poignancy.

When it comes time for the melodramatic action offered by the sci-fi-monster plot, Bong naturally opts for the captivity narrative familiar from US Westerns, and uses it far better than Spielberg in his War of the Worlds remake: everything depends on snatching back little Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung), Gong-du's daughter, from the clutches of the creature. Just as naturally, Bong perverts this model, twisting it in a number of surprising ways. But he always comes back to a family unit of some kind, however weirdly constituted, and one that ultimately resembles The Simpsons. The world may be going to hell, courtesy of US foreign policy, but as long as there's some junk food lying around in the ruins, all is not lost.

Adrian Martin
Adrian Martin is an associate professor at Monash University, and a film and arts critic. His books include Phantasms, Once Upon a Time in America and Movie Mutations. @AdrianMartin25

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