The Host (South Korea, 2006) * * * *
D: Joon-Ho Bong
Some critics, in struggling to describe the chameleonic (or maybe chimera-like) The Host, simply call it a comedy, or a horror-comedy. But like John Landis' An American Werewolf in London, The Host is a monster movie that just happens to be pretty funny. It's a satire, but it has teeth, so to speak, and real dramatic weight. The remake rights have been purchased by Universal, and you can bet that the American version will get it all wrong. It has a particular, sublime tone, as precise as the narrowly-won bull's-eyes you see archer Nam-Joo scoring in competition at the film's beginning. One twitch and your arrow would fly far from the mark.
She's the sister of Gang-Du, a middle-aged, somewhat dimwitted slacker not averse to giving his adolescent daughter, Hyun-seo, a cold beer while they watch Nam-Joo compete on television. Gang-Du is the shame of the Park family, which also includes his brother Nam-il, a former campus revolutionary, and his protective father, Hie-bong. One day--which is only prepared for in some sketchy but effective opening scenes involving chemical dumping and a mysterious fish caught (and then accidentally released again) in the Han River--a giant, mutant, two-legged amphibian erupts from the water and storms through a park, crushing or swallowing anyone in its path. Gang-Du attempts to flee with his daughter, but in the chaos and confusion grabs the hand of the wrong girl; when he looks behind him, he sees Hyun-seo lifted from the ground by a massive, tentacle-like tail, then taken into the river along with the beast. It's not precisely his fault, but his brother and sister are quick to blame Gang-Du, who has always been perceived as the underachieving runt of the Park clan. Korean military begin to quarantine anyone exposed to the creature, believing a related virus is on the loose, and this includes Gang-Du, who was splashed with the monster's blood (while bravely trying to kill it, but never mind--Gang-Du never mentions it, and no one would believe him anyway). It's while in this quarantine that he receives a call from his daughter, who can only let out that she's in "a big sewer" before her cell phone battery dies. Operating from so little information, the Parks stage an escape, then an infiltration into the supposedly contaminated zone in an attempt to rescue Hyun-seo. The problem is they're a bickering, dysfunctional family (I'm sure the guy who pitched it to Universal said, "It's like 'Alien' meets 'Little Miss Sunshine!'"). Although they heavily arm themselves while penetrating into the vast, grimy sewers in search of the missing girl, and tentatively set aside their differences in favor of a clannish loyalty, in The Host nothing goes off just as it should, and every expectation is subverted. There's a big pay-off in the finale, but along the way even the most heroic characters will be broken or tossed aside in the wake of two terrifying monsters: the river-dwelling "host," which seems to be collecting its half-digested victims like souvenirs, and the government itself, which insists there's a virus to justify taking extreme measures against the public--even though little evidence surfaces that the virus actually exists.
About that tone: some critics are calling it a comedy because, well, there are pratfalls, sight gags, and some truly black humor (note the context of a punctured beer can's reappearance late in the film). Although the suspense setpieces are up to the best of Steven Spielberg, the offbeat satire calls to mind Terry Gilliam's Brazil, or even his work with Monty Python. But don't overlook the emotional core of the film, which comes from a family unit shifting from the macrocosmic--the Parks--to the microcosmic: the one Hyun-seo forms with another young captive of the monster, and the one Gang-Du forms in the soft-spoken epilogue, more stable and secure in the wake of a major loss. The Host is most obviously about environmental pollution--hell, the climax is so engulfed in clouds of chemicals that you'll feel like choking--and of course it's also about the tyrannical overreaction of governments exploiting disaster. But most of all, and most unexpectedly, The Host is a monster movie about families, and the complicated way they can tear each other apart, and then repair themselves into something of a different shape: as formidable as any beast.