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Supercalifragilisticexpialimonstrous
by Lucius Shepard
February 2, 2007

We live in an age of hyperbole. More specifically, we inhabit a milieu in which the excessive and imprecise language of advertising has numbed us to certain words. Beer, for example, is frequently described as "great." A new model car may be anointed "a masterpiece" of design, and toilet paper is compared to silk. In an effort to upgrade a product’s greatness, to differentiate it from the merely great, words are often cobbled together into neologisms such as "cruncheriffic" and "super-fabulosity." This mythologizing of the mundane has spilled over into common usage, polluting the language and degrading meanings, so that in conversation we hear terms once reserved for the sublime utilized in connection with a plate of fried rice, a shade of lipstick, or a football player’s end-zone dance. Lately this tendency has found its way into our critical language and, as a result, our judgments have suffered, for language is not merely a means of expressing opinion—it also serves as a lens through which we view the world. When that lens becomes clouded, our view becomes blurred and we are more readily persuaded that the Emperor’s New Clothes are real.

If I had come to Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth without having heard the attendant hype, not expecting a masterpiece, I might have been pleasantly surprised. Though the movie itself contains few surprises, it is an interesting realization of a contemporary fairy tale. In the beginning, during the final days of the Spanish Civil War, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl on the verge of adolescence, travels with her very pregnant mother to a country estate that her evil stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), is using for a headquarters while he attempts to exterminate a handful of rebels who are still fighting against the fascist regime. To escape the oppression of war and Vidal’s savagery, Ofelia flees into a fantasy world wherein she is the reincarnation of Princess Moana, daughter of the King of the Underworld, missing lo these many centuries. Led by a pixie in CGI insect form into an ancient labyrinth, she meets a satyr-like faun, who tells her she must perform three tasks in order to enter her father’s kingdom and regain her immortality. The first task—take a golden key from the belly of an immense toad who dwells in a hollow beneath a vast, gnarly tree. The second task demands that she gain access to a banquet hall where a pale, eyeless demon awaits. The third task involves the sacrifice of innocent blood. Intertwined with Ofelia’s fantasy, a second story plays out, this being the record of Captain Vidal’s brutal abuse of Ofelia’s mother, the villagers, the servants, and the rebels. The two narratives fit together nicely and stand separately, yet some overlapping, a touch of thematic and structural confusion, might have heightened the suspense and made for a more compelling film.

For all there is to admire about Pan’s Labyrinth, and there is much—the sumptuous, Catholic imagery (feasts and sacrifice and immortal kingdoms); the beautifully realized fecundity of the Underworld; the living mandrake root that Ofelia places beneath her mother’s bed to cure her of an illness brought on by pregnancy; the lovely scene when Ofelia tells a story to her brother, who is still in the womb) . . . for all there is to admire, then, the movie fails to convey the slightest feeling of tension. While it’s true that fairy tales have different requirements than do tales of suspense, this particular fairy tale is a two-hour-long film and must be appreciated as such. From the outset we know more or less what will happen; every trope and character is overly familiar and we need something more to help propel us along the well-trodden path of the story. A handful of suspenseful moments do exist, but they are not sufficient to the task, especially considering that one, perhaps the most harrowing of them, is incited by an irresponsible act that seems out of character for Ofelia. Again, neither fairy-tale characters nor real people are compelled to be consistent, but Ofelia has been set up as thoroughly reliable and her irresponsibility strikes a wrong note that constitutes a jarring break in tone.

The film to which Pan’s Labyrinth begs to be compared is a legitimate masterpiece, Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, which also tells the story of a young girl who becomes obsessed with a fairy tale (the James Whale version of Frankenstein) during the last days of the Spanish Civil War. In Beehive (a film del Toro has surely seen), Erice evokes a child’s viewpoint so dreamily and elliptically, most of the narrative seems to occur without ever being stated and nothing is what it appears to be. In Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro is stating that this right here is the world and this over here is fantasy; he pays lip service to the fact that both may be real, but this putative ambiguity is over-literalized and thus achieves a kind of moral simplification. Erice’s subject matter is more nuanced and allusive than Del Toro’s, and his blurry-edged, profoundly human vision suggests rather than announces the inexpressible terrors of childhood. In Del Toro’s vision, the real-world monster, Captain Vidal, has a fantasy-world analog, the Eyeless Man, and that very equivalence weakens both characters by offering the one as a quasi-explanation for the evil that the other represents, causing me to wish that Del Toro had chosen to make either a film about the Spanish Civil War or a fairy tale. It’s all very neat, but what can we take from the film as it stands apart from the verities that fascism is bad and young children are vulnerable? Ultimately, Pan’s Labyrinth falls victim to its own hype and comes across as a better-than-average, visually interesting motion picture, perhaps Del Toro’s best, but scarcely a film that bears comparison to the classics of modern cinema.

Monster movies are fairy tales with bigger teeth. There is no salient difference between the two forms—they each perform the same allegorical duty. Even nasty latter-day monsters like Hannibal Lecter and his ilk function on some level as moral devices. My favorite monster movies are those made during the Fifties and Sixties, when aliens, dinosaurs, robots, mutants, and so forth served as stand-ins for the threat embodied by the Cold War. I enjoyed the nihilistic aspects of these films perhaps more than was healthy, delighting in the sight of tiny people being crushed of vaporized or chewed by enormous jaws. My first novel, written when I was ten, incorporated an enormous sting ray named Mangoga, who surfaced now and again in the waters off Daytona Beach and would lash out with its thousand-foot tail to impale various of my acquaintances. I had, as they say, issues. But then such are the pleasures of youth.

At any rate, now comes a picture that stirs up those old feelings—I’m speaking of Bong Joon-ho’s The Host. Bong’s previous movie, Memories of Murder, was a unique police procedural, using as its focal point an unsolved series of serial murders in rural South Korea during the late 80s – early 90s. Slow-moving, rich in detail, leavened with moments of comedy, it not only succeeded in defining the principals involved—suspects, police, and victims—but also created a superb character study of the entire nation under the Orwellian Chun dictatorship. The Host is neither slow-moving nor as ambitious, but for a monster movie it is supremely ambitious, layering social satire and a narrative concerning a dysfunctional family into the story of a mutant that surfaces from the Han River near Seoul (the story references an actual event as the cause of the mutation, the dumping of a massive amount of formaldehyde into the river by a mortuary assistant).

The patriarch of the family in question, Heui-bong Park, runs a tiny convenience store on the banks of the Han and more or less takes care of his mildly retarded son, Gang-du (Song Gang-ho, who played a brutal cop in Memories of Murder), and Gang-du’s teenaged daughter, Hyeon-so. Following an opening section during which the formaldehyde is shown being dumped six years earlier, these three are watching Hyeon-so’s aunt, Nam-ju, on TV, taking part in an archery competition, when the mutant is seen hanging beneath a bridge over the Han. By the time they emerge from the store, the mutant (an amphibious fish-creature with the approximate mass of a step-van) has put to flight hundreds of picnickers and strollers, killing many in the process. After much bloodshed and people-munching, the monster snatches up Hyeon-so in its whip-like tail and swims away. At a mass funeral ceremony for the victims, Huei-bong’s other son, Nam-il, a former college revolutionary turned unemployed salary man, blames Gang-du for Hyeon-so’s death and the family’s grief devolves into bickering. Things are further complicated when a government official announces that the monster carries a deadly virus, quarantines the family and other survivors, and begins fumigating the area. While in quarantine, Gang-du receives a call from Hyeon-so, made on her failing cell phone—she is alive, trapped in the immense sewer system beneath the bridge. When the police and the doctors refuse to believe Gang-du about the call, the family manages to escape from the government and begin hunting for Hyeon-so through the sewers.

Much of the satirical material has an anti-American slant (though it seems equally anti-Korean in that the movie seems to be chiding Koreans for succumbing to our culture), and this may not appeal to domestic audiences. Some may find certain elements of Korean humor intrusive (though I find interesting the portions of Korean culture that Bong chooses to lampoon). The middle section of the picture is overlong, but Bong keeps the film centered by focusing on Hyeon-Su (Ko A-sung) and Gang-du. A-Sung’s performance is particularly fine, morphing from a schoolgirl whining to her father about (ironically) her ugly cell phone into a resourceful young woman who survives for days in the monster’s lair, surrounded by the bodies of those it intends to consume at a later date. The monster itself is a star of at least equal magnitude—capable of a shambling, lurching run on land; of gliding swiftly through the water; and of doing back flips through mid-air like a gymnast, using its tail to swing from beam to beam as it moves beneath the bridge; it may be the best designed of all cinematic creatures. It is equipped with huge teeth that can bite a man in half and also possesses a segmented mouth that allows it to swallow its victims whole and carry them to its lair to save for snack time. This is a monster so fully developed, it manages over the course of the film to develop something of a personality, and it is a testament to its creators (The Orphanage) as much as to the direction that only rarely did I notice I was watching a visual effect.

Bringing the monster onscreen early in the film’s first act is just one of the ways in which Bong defies genre conventions, all the while maintaining a reverence for the form, never looking down his nose at the subject matter as is often the case with an homage. Throughout the film there are scenes and moments that exceed our expectations, something that an American genre movie has not achieved to such an extent since Alien. The Host is not that picture’s equal in its evocation of terror, yet possesses its own signal virtues that more than compensate for this deficiency. If you are a devotee of the sub-genre, I urge you to see the movie and not wait for the American remake, a picture that will inevitably be stripped of the humor and context that give it depth, and doubtless will feature a bigger, gaudier monster that poses a threat not merely to a city but to All Mankind, a creature from which we can be saved only by the intervention of Josh Hartnett.