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 (#$*%^#s 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".Credit to LoveHKFilm