the HOST

"...expertly staged and edited-the Host plays sort of like Godzilla vs. Little Miss Sunshine."

Once Again Nature Points Out the Folly of Man

(031707) An old-fashioned Friday-night monster movie gets tangled up with a dysfunctional family redemption saga, along with a healthy dollop of acid-black political satire in Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host, the wildest and weirdest movie to hit screens in quite some time. It is smashing entertainment that has a lot more on its mind than one might reasonably expect from a film in which a giant lizard stomps around Korea eating people.

Playfully mashing up barbed globalization metaphors with some blunt anti-American resentment, The Host is a wickedly funny roller coaster that uses outlandish make-believe to touch on some very real contemporary fears and anxieties.

We begin at a U.S. Army base in Korea, where our boys are busy preserving the peace and dumping toxic chemicals into the Han River. As the years wear on, fishermen discover some freaky stuff swimming around the water, but nobody pays much attention. Until one fateful afternoon when a gigantic mutated-looking lizard is just hanging out, sunning itself under a bridge.

The horror movie playbook tells us creatures are supposed to be glimpsed incrementally, with great fanfare leading up to an eventual reveal. But all of the sudden here’s The Host’s great big monster, viewed full figure and snoozing in a quiet wide shot. People passing by don’t even react with the kind of shrieking or awe you’d expect from these movies. Instead, in one of the film’s funniest and most behaviorally dead-on flourishes, the jaded city-folk take a whole bunch of camera-phone photos before hurling garbage at the thing, trying to wake it up. Bad idea. Bong's camera swings around, capturing the on-lookers passive faces, and swings around again as it casually captures the giant beast, a kind of mutated squid, climbing onto the bank and galumphing toward us. It's an astonishing moment, perhaps the greatest "monster reveal" moment ever shot.

Spunky young Hyun-Seo (Ah-sung Ko) is stolen away by the creature when her family’s riverside fast-food stand gets trampled underfoot. Stashed away in the creature’s sewer lair for later snacking, the sprightly schoolgirl tries all manner of hair-raising escape attempts, to little avail. Meanwhile her thick-witted dad Gang-Du (Kang-ho Song) tries pulling together their feuding family for an ill-fated rescue effort. Regretful, recovering alcoholic grandpa Hie-bong (Hie-bong Byeon) marshals what’s left of their meager resources, enlisting resentful overachiever Nam-il (Hae-il Park) and cousin Nam-Joo (Du-na Bae), who just so happens to be a professional archer with anxiety issues. But before they can find Hyun-Seo, the family must first escape their government’s hilarious quarantine efforts.

Bong racks a ton of comic mileage needling bureaucratic incompetence and panicked misinformation—just watch these officials’ stumbling efforts to walk around in yellow radiation suits. Things go from bad to worse when the Americans get involved, seizing upon the idea that this beast (which they accidentally created) is carrying some sort of deadly virus, even though there isn’t the slightest scrap of evidence this is the case.

In its own quietly insinuating way, The Host becomes a snarky geopolitical allegory, as the U.S. reacts to a disaster not by capturing the monster responsible, but instead manufacturing false reasons to invade and kill countless innocents while chasing down a phantom menace. (The film also digresses for just long enough to provide the single greatest SARS joke ever.)

Of course such concerns are kept wisely to the periphery, and can be easily ignored by those who choose to be offended, or by anybody who’s just looking for a balls-to-the-wall creature feature. Throughout the expertly staged and edited scare sequences, Bong foregrounds this goofy family’s stumble toward healing, making The Host play sort of like Godzilla vs.
Little Miss Sunshine.

Bong Joon-Ho’s last film, the too-little-seen Memories of Murder, was a slightly bent police procedural that in many ways now seems an eerie precursor to David Fincher’s
Zodiac. He’s got a weird knack for abrupt tonal shifts, and his cast here expertly navigates some hairpin emotional curves. It’s suggested that Kang-ho Song’s hapless Gang-Du might be retarded, and one of the movie’s slyest gags is that the character doesn’t act all that differently after being lobotomized. But my favorite is Du-na Bae’s anxious archer. Star of the effervescent Japanese festival favorite Linda Linda Linda, this deadpan dynamo has such a naturally hilarious presence—scoring belly laughs while remaining completely still. Jim Jarmusch needs to write her a leading role, stat.

If there is a fault with the film, it’s that it is about 15 minutes too long. The Host is nonetheless the kind of funny-scary, subtext-freighted treat that’s catnip for both genre buffs and intellectuals.

The Host is playing at the River East and Landmark Century cinemas. It will most likely not be opening at a theater near you, as they say. So, even though both of these theaters may be a bit of a drive, The Host is well worth the effort.

Directed by:    Bong Joon-Ho
Written by:    Screenplay by Bong Joon-Ho, Ha Jun-weon, based on the story by Bong Joon-Ho
Starring:    Song Kang-ho, Scott Wilson, Byun Hee-Bong
Released:    03/09/07 (USA)
Length:    114 minutes
Rating:    Rated R for creature violence and language

THE HOST © 2007 Magnolia Pictures
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2023 Alternate Reality, Inc.

(aka "Old Reviews")