This is far and away the best Korean monster movie I’ve ever seen. However, since it’s also the only Korean monster movie I’ve ever seen, that assessment may not be the best informed one possible. That said, while I found Joon-ho Bong’s The Host a largely enjoyable—if absurdly overlong—experience of the more peculiar kind, I freely admit I don’t quite get all the gushing praise that’s been bestowed on the film. All of the claims about the movie’s subversive political stance may be justified (personally, I found its satire a little heavy-handed and obvious), but it’s not as if Mr. Bong has reinvented the wheel here.
Without straining, I can name three horror pictures—Larry Cohen’s The Stuff (1985), Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) and Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs (1991)—that are easily as politically subversive, if not more so. I suspect it’s a sign of our collective sense of cultural inferiority that these films are forgotten in the rush to praise this subtitled import. While I deplore the fact that American audiences are resistant to subtitled movies, I’m equally uncomfortable with the très snob perception that films in a foreign language are automatically more “cultural.”
However, Bong’s film has a lot going for it, and it works quite well as an homage to a kind of giant-monster-on-a-rampage flick that is not much seen these days. (I think the last good one was Larry Cohen’s Q back in 1982.) The Host begins promisingly enough with a U.S. military type (a cameo by Scott Wilson) ordering a hapless Korean to pour hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde down the drain, despite protestations that the liquid will go straight into Seoul’s Han River. (This is anti-U.S. imperialism jibe number one.) This being an ecological horror picture, the result is a huge mutated horror that looks like something Hieronymus Bosch might have dreamed up after overindulgence in rarebit and some bad acid. The creature is hard to describe—not in the least because Bong seems to play fast and loose with its specifics and size (à la the original King Kong) depending on the desired impact of the moment—but it’s decidedly nasty looking, and has a mouth that combines the worst qualities of the Alien monster with the Kraken from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006).
The beast makes its appearance one lazy afternoon when people are picnicking and otherwise relaxing on the banks of the Han, and while it provides some brief novelty value for the onlookers, that novelty quickly turns to terror as it proceeds to come ashore and eat a number of the assembled holidaymakers. One of the hapless victims is schoolgirl Hyun-seo Park (Ah-sung Ko), the daughter of a (badly) bleached blonde layabout named Gang-du Park (Kang-ho Song) who ekes out an existence by working (or sleeping) at his father’s (Hie-bong Byeon) riverside diner. It is the dysfunctional Park family—long suffering patriarch, goofy Gang-du, his drunken political activist brother (Hae-il Park), his near-champion archer sister (Doo-na Bae) and Hyun-seo—who are at the center of the story; since, after a bout of over-the-top comedic mourning, they learn that Hyun-seo is alive somewhere under a bridge on the river. Seems the monster has kept her for later snacking.
The bulk of the film involves their efforts to rescue the kid—despite the efforts of the government to quarantine them (on the flimsy pretext that they’re somehow infected with a virus from the monster) and the effects of their own bumbling limitations. A lot of this works in a loopy fashion, and once the film hits the halfway point it nearly all works. The comedy is sometimes a little too broad and the satire definitely ham-handed and often not well developed, though the frenzied governmental attempts to prove the existence of a nonexistent virus are very funny and chilling. Plus, there’s a certain amount of flab on the movie’s 119-minute running time, causing chunks of the narrative to drag in the first half.
Patience, however, is rewarded with a slam-bang finale that not only delivers, but is also surprisingly well thought-out and impressively fearless in its refusal to pander to the viewer. The Host is both fun and thought-provoking, but it’s just not the instant classic it’s being hailed as. Rated R for creature violence and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke