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
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
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.