Move over Japanese horror film makers: The best stuff is coming out of Korea now
K-Horror Is New J-Horror
J-horror -- the collection of Japanese scare flicks like Ringu and Ju-on: The Grudge -- is becoming very last week. Tired of greasy-haired ghosts and demonic consumer electronics, fans of these Asian genre shockers are ready for something new.
Their wait may be over. The Host, a wicked sci-fi horror comedy featuring a lithe and ravenous mutant tadpole, smashed South Korea's box office records in just six weeks.
Now it's coming to America, first in its original version, on screens in more than 100 cities this month, and then in a remake planned by Universal Pictures.
Bong Joon-ho's film is the most visible of a new wave of genre-bending Korean films, including the upcoming D-War, a CGI-heavy $70 million film about a killer snake that invades L.A.
The plot of The Host isn't anything spectacular: Cute girl is captured by grotesque monster; her bumbling family hunts the monster.
But Bong cleverly splices together Shawn of the Dead-style spoof, political commentary (the monster is spawned after an American dumps toxic waste in the river) and dramatic moments that are surprisingly moving.
It's one of the rare monster mashes that critics love, too. The New York Times called it the best film at last year's Cannes film festival, and Ain't It Cool News said it's "on a par with Jaws."
Bong considers himself part of what he describes as Korea's "cinephile generation," comprised of young directors who learned about movies by watching cool stuff from around the world. The Host draws inspiration from Signs, Jaws and the Loch Ness Monster, but has its own local sensibilities. "Korea now has the directors who are able to quote and destroy the various genres at the same time," Bong said in an e-mail interview.
The Host deploys effects from A-list shops including L.A.-based The Orphanage (which worked on Hellboy, Sin City and Superman Returns) and Peter Jackson's Weta (Lord of the Rings trilogy). Kevin Rafferty, visual effects supervisor for Jurassic Park II, oversaw the action scenes.
The Host's international partnerships represent a rare bit of outreach for South Korean cinema, which has remained both stubbornly autonomous and artistically adventurous for years. But they also are a sign of South Korea's emerging position as new international hot spot for hip cinema.
Park Chan-wook, who won an award at Cannes for his wrenching Oldboy, and Kim Ji-woon, creator of the intricate-as-Memento cult horror film Tale of Two Sisters are arthouse heroes. The Pusan Film Festival, held each October outside of Seoul, is becoming the Sundance of the East.
Hollywood has taken notice. During the past six years, Hollywood studios have cashed in on J-horror with profitable remakes like The Ring and The Grudge. Recently, they've been gobbling up the rights to re-do South Korean movies including My Sassy Girl, Oldboy, My Wife Is a Gangster and Tale of Two Sisters. That's despite the so-so Keanu Reeves film Lake House, adapted from the ghost story Shiworae.
The stateside release of The Host gives fans a rare chance to catch an original version before Hollywood sanitizes it.
Not all South Korean filmmakers are happy about hopping in bed with Hollywood studios. Some protested the way The Host monopolized the country's theaters last year, and worry that Korean cinema, which has developed a reputation in the cinephile world as distinctive and risk-taking, will revert to the cheap thrills of genre movies. If Bong can make buckets of money making a monster mash film, won't other directors and producers drop their art films and do the same?
Darcy Paquet, who covers Korean cinema for the trade paper Variety and at Koreanfilm.org, doesn't think so. "Ambitious Korean filmmakers tend to focus on the local audience -- which tends to be highly demanding -- and let the international career take care of itself," he said.
Bong shrugs off the controversy. He's forged ahead on another Korean hybrid film, a big-budget adaptation of the French post-apocalyptic comic Le Transperceneige. And he's hedging his bets about the Hollywood version of The Host.
"If a truly amazing remake comes out, then, as the original director, I will be happy," he said. "If the remake film turns out to be a disastrously stupid film, then the original will be evaluated greater than the new one, so I don't mind that, either."
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