Host breaks Korean box office records
Film critics say the success of “The Host” was predicted well ahead of the film’s opening on July 27.
The film, about a family fighting a mutant from the Han River, is packed full of social commentary about recent Korean history, taking it beyond the simple monster story suggested in the film’s poster.
What differentiates “The Host” from other historical Korean films such as “Taegugki” or “Silmido” ― two of the highest-grossing films in the history of Korean cinema next to “The Royal Jester” ― however, is that Bong deliberately kept the film’s social content subtle so that its critical voice wouldn’t overpower the story.
In fact, film critics note that there has been a tendency among the audiences to ignore the controversy that the film is anti-American and say “a movie is just a movie.”
(“The Host” suggests that the monster was caused by toxic chemicals secretly poured into the Han River by military officials from a U.S. army base.)
The approach taken by Bong was a dramatic contrast to Kang Woo-seok’s “Hanbando,” which failed at the box office after stressing a nationalistic message.
Analysts say the difference in how the two films fared reveals a subtle formula to success in contemporary Korean blockbusters, where a film must provide strong entertainment even when it deals with socio-political content.
“In the film, the idea of America suggests ‘a giant power,’” says Lee Sang-yong, a film critic. “But the film chose to follow the notion of ‘anti-Americanism’ within the conventions of a monster film, rather than an intricate projection of political consciousness.”
Others say that the film’s marketing as a family film succeeded in attracting younger audiences, a segment which previous films such as “Silmido” and “Taegugki” missed.
Recently, the industry has come up with the term “kidult blockbuster,” an expression for films that target both kids and adults using digital special effects and social metaphor to please both age groups. A typical Hollywood example of a kidult blockbuster was “ET.”
Indeed, “The Host” was rated suitable for those aged over 12 by the local media rating board ― the lowest rating among any Korean film that attracted more than 10 million viewers. The other three ― “The Royal Jester,” “Taegugki” and “Silmido” ― were restricted to audiences over 15.
Even on Internet movie sites, ticket reservations for “The Host” were higher among teens than the other three movies.
According to Maxmovie, teen reservation rates for “The Host” were 6 percent as of the film’s third week, about triple the figure for the other films. In general, experts within the local film industry say that drawing an audience of 10 million is no longer an extraordinary case, especially as the film opened in 620 movie theaters, about 40 percent of the 1,600 screens nationwide.
“If the market continues to grow, films could even exceed audiences of 15 million in the near future,” said Kim Young-jin, a film critic. “But if a single film invades most theaters in the nation, other Korean films have little chance of success.”
The film, which was viewed pessimistically during pre-production as monster movies were unprecedented in Korea, also succeeded partly by keeping the story under wraps.
During pre-production, the producers had difficulty attracting backers and so turned to Japanese investors.
By early May, however, word-of-mouth for the film reversed after its world premiere at the Cannes International Film Festival, and praise from foreign critics fueled local expectations for the film.
For months before the official press conference in mid-June, Showbox, the film’s distributor, had not released a single photograph of the monster. Previews were also limited to a minimum.
Trailers and film advertisements focused instead on Bong Joon-ho, the director known for “Memories of Murder,” which earned both critical success and became a box office hit.
Film critics say Showbox made every attempt to turn “The Host” into Bong’s trademark film.
The producers deliberately used the director’s personal experience as part of the film’s promotion, unlike more common trailers that show highlight clips from the movie.
The film’s trailer begins with Bong’s commentary on seeing a monster climbing a bridge of the Han River from his apartment window when he was 19, triggering audiences’ curiosity as to what Bong really saw, and who he really is.
“We predicted the director and actors from ‘Memories of Murder’ would appeal to the audience in terms of the film’s credibility as well as a monster film being a bonus for students on summer vacation,” says Choi Young-bae, a director of Cheongeoram, the film’s producer.
On top of its successful marketing, the film’s critical evaluation as a social parody has earned a unanimously favorable response since its release.
A notable analysis from critics is that the film’s “monster” was a social portrait of modern Korean society, as the film referenced actual events that happened in Korea.
For example, the film’s U.S. Army scientists, who dump toxic chemicals into the Han River in Seoul, are a reminder of the case of Albert McFarland, a civilian mortician for U.S. Forces Korea who ordered the dumping of formaldehyde into the river in 2000.
Scenes of civilians fighting the monster ― Nam-il, the family’s youngest son and a former student activist, throwing Molotov cocktails at the monster ― raise the possibility that the monster actually represents elements of modern Korean history, perhaps the military dictatorships or democratic uprisings.
There is one school of thought that the film is a reference to the Gwangju Uprising, as the address indicated on the wanted list of Gang-du (played by Song Gang-ho), who ran away from a hospital after accusations he was the monster’s “virus-carrier,” is the Nam district of Gwangju, South Jeolla Province.
Careful viewers also noticed a memorial flower marked as being from the family members of the Daegu subway fire ― in which more than 300 people died in 2003 ― at a temporary funeral site for victims of the monster in the film.
Bong responded to various analyses of the film by saying, “The central characters of the film are really Gang-du’s family, who fight against the monster. They are our families, who maintained their fights in desperation with help from nobody. It still hurts to think about their pain. This film is dedicated to them.”
by Lee Hoo-nam, Park Soo-mee