What can bring a down-and-out man out of his rut? That's the question answered only somewhat convincingly in Host & Guest, a slow-burn character drama initially released in 2006 that's finally reaching DVD nearly two years later. The reason for the film's delayed home video debut is most likely director Sin Dong-Il's almost alienating manner of shooting the entire film, as he uses that familiar Asian independent film style, opting only for extended medium shots and a very slow plot progression. Your enjoyment of the film likely depends on how dry you like your buddy films, because this one is as dry as they come.
Host & Guest actually starts out fairly promisingly, introducing us to unemployed film lecturer Ho-Joon as he moves into his new apartment. Recently divorced, he finds himself increasingly frustrated by things going on around him, from annoying door-to-door missionaries like Kye-Sang (Kang Ji-Hwan) to his inability to perform in bed with a prostitute. Sin presents Ho-Joon's frustrations with a dry sense of humor, often beginning each episode with a long take and taking his time to reach the payoff. The result is darkly comedic, as the angry Ho-Joon starts to earn sympathy as the frustrations around him finally build to a near-death episode in which he's trapped naked in his bathroom by the malfunctioning door. Lying naked on the bathroom floor and nearly unconscious, Ho-Joon can only lament on the films by certain directors that he has yet to see.
But before it's all over, Kye-Sang comes to the rescue, breaking down the door (insert major symbolism here) when he randomly passes by one day. Ho-Joon is grateful for his help, but immediately tells him that he's not buying whatever Kye-Sang is selling. Nevertheless, a friendship between the two men begins to grow, though Ho-Joon continues to find the worst ways to vent his frustrations. Besides, Kye-Sang has his own issues as well, and Ho-Joon might just be the man to help him solve them.
Fortunately, Host & Guest never steps into religious propaganda territory, i.e. having Ho-Joon become saved when Kye-Sang helps him find God. Instead, Sin and co-writer Lee Seung-Jae explicitly answer that it's Kye-Sang's friendship and not his religious beliefs that saves Ho-Joon. For the most part, that friendship is portrayed quite convincingly, thanks to the film's emphasis on characterization and the two actors' performances. However, when the characters reach their enlightenment, the result feels more perfunctory than profound.
That's partly because the filmmakers try to do too much with too little time. Sin seems to be interested in making more than just another buddy film, as references to events at the time - particularly the war in Iraq and George W. Bush being elected into his second term - are sprinkled throughout the film. These subjects even lead to one of Ho-Joon's several public outbursts, in which he gets into a pathetic fight with a stranger inside a taxi. Eventually, Sin even goes as far as suggesting that the two men's friendship possibly has something to do with the relationship between North and South Korea. However, it's never clear by the end of the film what Sin wants to say with his various allusions to current events.
It's also never clear what specific event brings Ho-Joon back from rock bottom. While Kye-Sang's kindness is a large part of his redemption, the change is presented as happening suddenly rather than gradually. This is also the case for Kye-Sang's suggested transformation. In the beginning of the film, he's presented as an uptight, conservative man of religion who has to be brought out of his closed world to confront his past. However, his outcome seems to arise from a missing third act and lacks any catalyst for a transformation on his part.
Also, Kim Jae Rok is so good at playing the bitter version of Ho Joon that his change into a decent character is even less convincing. With his bony physique and natural "sour grapes" facial features, Kim is perfectly cast in his role. His outbursts and his generally unpleasant demeanor make up a significant portion of Host & Guest, so when the film suddenly switches to him being the exact opposite, the result appears unnatural. On the other hand, Kang Ji-Hwan is perfectly likable as Kye Sang because of his character's inoffensive persona. However, that very same nice-guy image hurts him; when the character is forced out of his comfort zone, Kang's performance suffers.
Nevertheless, it's that personality conflict that makes Host & Guest worth watching. Sin's directorial style will likely test the patience of most audiences, but it also keeps the characters in the realm of reality without turning them into caricatures. The style forces us to keep our focus on the characters, and it works just fine for more forgiving viewers who can wait for a payoff. However, Sin himself loses that focus with his desire to make the film suggest more than what's there, throwing the film into various directions that lead nowhere. Nonetheless, Host & Guest is a carefully composed exploration into a society's outcast that will - in a rather appropriate fashion - likely find most of its appreciative fans outside the mainstream taste. (Kevin Ma, 2008)