I’ve been eyeing “The Host” for years, having heard it was the inspiration for several other “kaiju”-style monster films since, most notably “Cloverfield,” but it took me years before I was finally able to make the comparison myself. Although the two have some similarities – undersea creature mutated by modern living returns to ravage modern civilization – you could say the same thing about Godzilla. Fortunately “The Host” stands quite well on its own.
It all begins with an urban myth. An American military pathologist (Scott Wilson) supposedly dumped 480 bottles of dusty formaldehyde down the drain into the Han River. The facts behind this case have been monstrously distorted, just like the twisted beast in “The Host,” but that doesn’t stop the movie from telling a great tale. The film implies that “the host” country (South Korea) is being taken advantage of the United States.
But “The Host” is as much a film about (Korean) family values as it is about monsters. The family in question is led by patriarch Hee-Bong (Byeon Hee-bong), his three children: national medalist archer Nam-joo (Bae Doona), former activist Nami-il (Park Hae-il), dim-witted snack-bar assistant Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho); and Park’s daughter and Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seong).
To American audiences Park, who is comically narcoleptic, appears as a washed-up man-child dependent on his father’s income. But Park is also a member of a tightly meshed family unit and therefore the closest to his father despite his economic woes. When Hyun-seo is kidnapped by the creature as a future meal, they band together to do what the government won’t.
Making matters worse is the suspicion that the beast is infectious and therefore Park, who came into contact with the creature, is a vector (another “host”), evoking SARS, avian flu, and “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.” Intercut between government suppression and the family’s grief are scenes of suspicion among the civilian populace. Masks are worn. People who appear sick are shunned. And the media feasts on their fear.
American audiences are likely to be turned off by the broad caricatures of incompetence and grief. Park in particular is difficult to like. THE SPOILER: This is the kind of movie where a horrific lobotomy scene is played for laughs.
Director Bong Joon-ho is familiar with all the typical movie tropes and tweaks them. He introduces several Chekov Guns – Will Nam-joo finally make a critical bow shot after freezing up at the Olympics? Will Nami-il use his guerilla tactics for good? Will Park save the last bullet for the monster? – and then promptly teases the audience by having each character utterly fail, at first, to do what we expect.
Like the other tropes that are averted in “The Host,” the creature is hidden for a few minutes and then come barreling onto screen, in full daylight, amidst a crowd. This fact becomes a sore point with the military—the creature does nothing to hide and yet the government can’t, or won’t, find it. The beast itself is a water pollution nightmare, part-tadpole, part-deep sea fish. Milky white orbs serve as eyes, vestigial limbs jut at odd angles, and the monster lopes painfully on the land. It is the sum of all our fears: our civilized world is so corrupt that even something as natural as sharing a drink at a watering hole has been violated.
“The Host” has its flaws, but like the titular monster, it is far more powerful as a symbol of our worst fears than as a mere monster movie.
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