What do you get when you cross an old-fashioned B-level monster movie, an eco-political farce, and a poignant road-trip flick? Well, you get The Host, actually. And let me just say this up front: It is awesome. The Host, Bong Joon-ho’s follow-up to the successful Memories of Murder went on to become South Korea’s biggest domestic grosser of all time, and it deserved every goddamn penny. Indeed, Bong does for Godzilla and Alien what Scream did for Freddy and Jason and what 28 Days Later … and Shaun of the Dead did for zombies. Yet The Host one-ups them all by combining slapstick with political undertones and merging comedy and horror with a plot that accomplishes what so few horror movies even attempt anymore: moving you to something awfully damn close to tears.
While the new wave of American horror directors aim to shock you with cleaved flesh, trick you into falling for predictably lame twists, or subvert already multiply subverted genres, The Host manages to borrow heavily from sci-fi creature movies and blend those high-camp elements into a crowd-pleasing message film. Even better, it’s one of the few contemporary horror films you can watch while enjoying your popcorn, rather than trying to keep it down.
The political subtext is clear from the film’s opening, when we see an American mortician (Scott Wilson) order an unwilling Korean subordinate to pour gallons of formaldehyde down the drain and into the Seoul’s Han River, which establishes the subservient relationship between South Korea and the United States. The chemicals are responsible a couple of years later for a mutated tadpole of some sort that invades the body of a suicide jumper. The result is a clumsy giant creature that looks something like the love child of the Alien and the Predator crossed with the Jolly Green Giant and a monster truck. And it is obscenely fun to watch. The creature runs amok on the shores of the Han, performing acrobatic back flips, flinging park-goers into the river with its whip tail, and gobbling up victims whole with its molluscular mouth with the kind of unadulterated glee you’d expect from Rosie O’Donnell at an all-you-can-eat fish fry.
Here enters the quirky, dysfunctional Park family, who run a snack stand on the shore of the river. It’s Miss Sunshiney in composition, with the layabout single father, Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) who attacks the monster with street signs; the crusty former-alcoholic grandfather, Park Hie-bong (Byeon Hie-bong); the smart, troublemaking brother, Nam-il (Park Hae-il); and the sister, Nam-ju (Bae Du-na), a professional archer with a tendency to crack under pressure. Rounding out the clan is the film’s Abigail Breslin, Gang-du’s adorable daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung), who is lifted by the Host during the melee and taken to an underground sewer, where she attempts to make rescue calls to her family from cell phones stolen from the human carcasses regurgitated by the Host.
While cute little Hyun-seo is playing dead to avoid being swallowed up by the creature, the rest of the family has been sequestered away by the bureaucratic Korean government and their American puppet masters, who believe a SARS-like virus is responsible for the monster. The Americans are indifferent to the body count that both the government and the Jolly Green Mutant are racking up, as long as they can isolate the virus and save face, and they seek to remedy the situation with Agent Yellow, a bioseptic chemical with all sorts of metaphorical connotations.
Meanwhile, the Park family escapes from the men in radiation suits and ventures on a quest to rescue Hyun-seo, first from the sewers where she’s been hidden and later from the literal belly of the beast. While the outrageously campy creature-sequences that open the film draw you in, it’s this emotionally riveting pursuit of Hyun-seo that sells it. The initial escape from authoritarian officials is a hilarious comedy-of-errors, four stooges running from bumbling Korean scientists, complete with a multitude of amusing bitch-slaps. But as the pursuit continues, the family becomes more and more relatable, especially the slacker Dad, Gang-du, who seeks to redeem his honor by saving his daughter, whom he was partially responsible for losing to the creature in the first place.
Incredibly, Bong manages to suffuse his messages — the dangers of mob hysteria, the hazards of chemical pollution, the rise of Korean corporations, and threats posed by post-9/11 American military arrogance — with a light-hearted touch; most of the time you never notice you re being preached to because you’re enjoying yourself too much. What’s most impressive, however, is that Bong creates the rare horror-film character — one you’d rather see succeed than get eaten, a remarkable feat here, given just how deliciously awesome it is to see the Host’s victims gulped down like oyster shooters. But I will tell you this: When Gang-du and his archer sister finally confront the beast in the final minutes, it’s as breathtaking, heartbreaking, and plain badass as anything you’ll see at the theater this year.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
The Host / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | March 20, 2007 | Comments ()