Asian monster movies
live with The Host. Director Bong Joon-Ho (Memories
of Murder) delivers this year's finest commercial
vehicle, a polished creature feature that manages
to be thrilling, funny, and sometimes even moving.
That's a tall order for any film, not to mention one
that seems to derive its inspiration from Japanese
monster movies and Hollywood blockbusters. Aping someone
else's formula is frequently a recipe for disaster,
but The Host triumphs by taking a well-worn
premise and doing the unexpected with it. Bong Joon-Ho
manages humanity (if not heart) with his monster movie,
and serves up just as much fun as he does fright.
The result is a movie that seems as fresh and unique
as it is an obvious spawn of kaiju films from
years past. Good game, Bong Joon-Ho.
The Host goes
for the throat almost immediately. After a few short
groundwork-laying interludes, the titular creature
makes its presence known. Part slug, part Stan Winston
creation, and all ugly, it's first seen suspended
from a bridge above the Han River by a group of onlookers
including dopey Kang-Du (Song Kang-Ho), a single parent
slacker who works at a snack shop run by his father
Hee-Bong (Byeon Hee-Bong). After the onlookers throw
trash at the creature's submerged form, it shows up
on the riverbank, sending everything and everyone
into chaos. It runs over civilians, trashes vehicles,
and starts to chew up a person or two. Kang-Du tries
to play hero briefly, but soon does the smart thing:
he flees with daughter Hyun-Seo (Ko Ah-Seong) in tow.
But due to a major miscommunication, Hyun-Seo gets
captured; the creature grabs her with its tail, whereupon
she gets dragged underwater leaving Kang-Du a shell-shocked
mess of a man.
But Kang-Du's problems
are just beginning. With Hyun-Seo presumed dead, he
and his family, including unemployed brother Nam-Il
(Park Hae-Il) and amateur archer Nam-Ju (Bae Doo-Na),
are soon detained in a hospital by the Korean government,
who suspect that the family - and anyone else who
gained exposure to the creature - is carrying a deadly
virus. Kang-Du is under exceptional observation because
he actually got some creature blood on him, but he
and his family soon get super-restless of their containment.
The reason: Kang-Du gets a cell phone call from Hyun-Seo,
who describes that she's trapped underground in the
sewers by the creature. That's all the motivation
Kang-Du and his family needs; they instigate a hospital
break and load up to whup some mutated amphibian ass.
Once out, they search for Hyun-Seo, encountering despair,
dodgy military bureaucracy, laughable teamwork, and
more than a few sly swipes at the troubled times we
live in. Oh yes, they also fight the monster.
The Host earns points for scaling down the clichés.
There are no flag-waving displays of Korea's military
might as they mobilize to take down the creature.
In fact, there's no flag-waving at all. Bong Joon-Ho
goes out of his way to tweak the political and cultural
climate, serving up minor-to-major barbs on the media,
the Korean government, student counterculture, recent
Asian health crises, and - most obvious of all - the good 'ol United States of America. As revealed
early in the picture, the creature's mutation is due
to the dumping of gallons of formaldehyde into the
Han River, an action instigated by a smarmy American
coroner dispensing orders to a Korean subordinate.
The scene is based on a real-life event that actually
occurred in Korean back in 2000. Bong Joon-Ho and
company simply appropriate the incident, turning it
into the cause of their fictional beast and thumbing
their nose at Uncle Sam at the same time.
Americans also get roasted
mercilessly in numerous scenes depicting the gross
duplicity of their military and government. However,
the Korean government doesn't come off looking that
good either. In fact, almost nobody does, except perhaps
Hyun-Seo, who displays an intelligence and bravery
not marred by the stunted emotions of adulthood. In
some of the best scenes in the film, Hyun-Seo tries
to escape from the clutches of the beast while protecting
a fellow prisoner, an orphaned boy (Lee Dong-Ho) who
got kidnapped along with his older brother. But her
game attempts reveal the beast's unexpected intelligence,
leading to the frightening prospect of The Host not actually following convention. You know the drill
in monster movies: the dog doesn't die, kids don't
die, and only old people and smarmy bastards bite
it. The script does fulfill some of those clichés,
but it also subverts many others, and carries a sense
of mortal peril at each and every turn. In The
Host, nobody seems safe, and it's that sense of
the unexpected that allows the film to thrill and
unnerve as it does.
The film is funny too,
the satirical nods being as blackly funny as they
are obvious in their source. Many moments that carry
the expectation of pathos turn into comic farce instead,
especially an early scene where the family explodes
in overdone histrionics over the supposedly dead Hyun-Seo.
The cast is uniformly excellent, each revealing their
characters as innately flawed and yet ultimately admirable - though they're not really the most sympathetic
bunch on the planet. The main characters are damaged
goods who bicker and behave uselessly, but still manage
to find that ounce of strength or bravery that marks
them as human, if not actually exceptional. Despite
all the clever satire, the ultimate feeling of The
Host seems to be one of dogged, against-all-odds
human survival. Basically, nobody is going to help
you, you may not be that capable, and you may even
fail. But if you struggle hard enough to survive,
then maybe your next meal is all the reward you'll
need. That message may not be glamorous, but there's
a human honesty to it that lasts beyond the end credits.
But forget the inspirational
mumbo-jumbo. Does the film thrill with a good old
fashioned man versus monster matchup? Yes, it does - though that's also where The Host partially
falters. There aren't actually many clashes with the
beast in the film, and there's certainly little that
matches the kinetic chaos of the opening creature
attack. The monster itself is fun to watch onscreen,
and seems to react with an almost recognizable emotion.
Frankly, given the creature's intelligence, it deserves
more, um, character development than the film allows.
But the monster never really gets its due. At the
film's climax, we get more satire involving biological
agents and crappy law enforcement, and we also get
a man vs. beast match-up that only surpasses Hollywood
because they don't go for the mega-mega happy ending.
But these are minor quibbles. Overall, The Host is as impressive and admirable as you could ever expect
a movie of its sort to be. It's paced exceptionally
well, and delivers an odd mix of humor, melancholy,
and CGI-assisted blockbuster panache. It's hard to
give that sort of filmmaking a name, but Bong Joon-Ho
does it with substance and style to spare. Maybe we'll
just call it "good". (Kozo 2006)