A virtual two-hander between an ornery skeptic and a young evangelist doesn’t sound very sexy, but with “Host & Guest” first time writer-director Shin Dong-il has fashioned a thoughtful, witty and involving gem. Tucked away in an obscure sidebar of this year’s Pusan fest, low budget pic is one of the least flashy but best of this year’s South Korean harvest, with considerable fest potential and even some specialist network chances.
On a gray winter morning in a Seoul suburb, morose film lecturer Ho-jun (Kim Jae-rok) wakes up, gets a sex phone call, tries masturbating over a porn site and abruptly dismisses two door-to-door missionaries. “Socially challenged” hardly describes Ho-jun. His idea of a chat-up line — as with a woman at his local 7-11 — is offering to loan a DVD of Fassbinder’s “Fear Eats the Soul.”
After getting trapped naked in his bathroom when the door handle jams, his major worries are (a) he’s going to die without ever having made a movie, and (b) he’ll miss a screening of Turkish artfilm “Uzak.”
Luckily, one of the evangelists, Gye-sang (Gang Ji-hwan), returns and rescues Ho-jun. When Ho-jun thanks him, Gye-sang says he should thank God.
Pic has taken its time up to this point, a third of the way in, and has only given background info in dribs and drabs. But helmer Shin has kept things gently moving, establishing a low-key, straight-faced humor with occasional funny barbs.
A cautious friendship develops between the two solitary souls: young, idealistic evangelist Gye-sang and middle-aged, cynical layabout Ho-jun. They go to see “Uzak” together, and later visit Gye-sang’s mother in the countryside, where Ho-jun tests Gye-sang’s faith during a long walk.Combo of two terrific lead perfs, and dialogue in which issues spring naturally from events and everyday conversation, makes “Host & Guest” a slow-burning but thoroughly involving 90 minutes.
The issues are hardly original — basically, practical vs. theoretical approaches to life — but they’re played and observed with humor, irony and delicacy, without grandstanding. And with Ho-jun becoming increasingly prone to manic outbursts (including a very funny one in a taxi with a commie-hating Dubbya supporter), pic has enough emotional ups and downs to maintain interest.
At the end of the day, neither changes the other’s beliefs. But each leaves the other affected in a subtle way and, as a coda shows, each draws strength from the other to justify their separate outlooks on life.
Tech package is modest but pro at all levels.