Directed by Bong Joon-ho
With Song Kang-ho, Park Hae-il, and Ko Ah-sung.
The nasty mutant antagonist of Bong Joon-ho’s terrific Korean monster mash-up The Host doesn’t exactly play coy with the audience. When it decides to emerge from Seoul’s Han River in an early sequence and make its existence known, it’s not to grab some isolated soul, giving us only a teasing glimpse of tail, claw, or tooth. No, it comes galloping from a distance full-steam along the waterfront to trample and/or devour as many horrified onlookers as possible — a freakish CGI-rendered combination of a polliwog, a dragon, and the huge underground alien calzones from Tremors. And with the monster’s grand broad-daylight entrance, Bong effectively announces, “This is not a monster movie the way you usually think of monster movies.”
In some ways, The Host plays like a throwback to the kind of creature-features that emerged out of Japan in the 1950s as manifestations of post-atomic-bomb societal anxiety. If so, it appears that what Koreans are afraid of is … Americans. The act that created the monster, it seems, was the arrogant order by a U.S. military scientist to dump gallons of toxic chemicals down a lab drain, where they’d wash into the Han River (based, apparently, on an actual incident). When official reports suggest that the monster’s bodily fluids have given birth to a deadly contagious virus, it is the Americans who step in to a situation where individual liberties are erased, so they can test an “antidote.” It’s almost as though we’ve given the world reason to think that we treat other nations with disdain and manipulate crises for dark purposes.
But while it’s hard to ignore the political allegory drifting through The Host, it works on a dozen other levels besides. At the center of the narrative is the dysfunctional Park family, whose patriarch (Byeon Hie-bong) and son Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) run a snack stand in a park along the Han River. Gang-du’s daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung) is among the first victims of the creature’s attack, and Gang-du’s siblings — his sister, world-class archer Nam-joo (Bae Du-na), and his brother, alcoholic ex-university activist Nam-il (Park Hae-il) — show up to mourn. But when a cell phone call tells them that Hyun-seo has survived the attack and is trapped in the creature’s lair, the feuding Parks are drawn together to find her. The familial interactions begin as over-the-top comedy, yet eventually settle into small, haunting moments like a shared meal of scavenged ramen that turns into a ritual, drawing even the missing Hyun-seo into the occasion. It’s like Little Miss Sunshine as creepy horror — only intentionally this time.
While Bong sets up great characters to anchor the plot, he also sets up individual scenes and sequences with crazy gusto. The creature’s first attack is a small masterpiece of action filmmaking, with Hyun-seo’s capture in particular providing an improbably gasp-inducing moment. Bong manufactures some great dark humor from the apparently manufactured infection scare, including a hazmat-suited official who tries to regain his stance of authority after taking a pratfall, and one gob of spit in a gutter turning into a curbside catastrophe. And while the creature’s interactions with its environment may look slightly fuzzier than the state-of-the-art, its unique movements — swinging from prehensile tail to clawed hand to tail again like The Gymnast from the Black Lagoon — and propensity for playing with its food give it a personality all its own. On a moment-to-moment basis, The Host is simply one of the most energetically staged and viscerally satisfying genre movies in recent memory.
What’s most impressive, though, is how effectively Bong both subverts expectations and plays right into them. The creature’s early appearance tells us that it’s not all about parceling out thrills until we finally get a big confrontation, especially when it seems at the 20-minute mark that we’ve already reached the place where most similar efforts would launch their climax. Yet Bong is also earnestly deliberate about setting up the Park family character flaws that must ultimately be overcome — Gang-du’s lackadaisical parenting, Nam-joo’s slowness on the bowstring — for them to emerge triumphant. You simply don’t often find movies that manipulate the audience so well, and in so many different ways. The Host isn’t just smart, it isn’t just satirical, it isn’t just emotional, and it isn’t just funny. It’s all of that, plus the bitchin’-cool vision of a giant mutant tadpole stampeding through screaming picnickers.