Right from the beginning, when the buzz first started to come out of the film festival circuit and filter through the internet, there was something about the Korean horror movie “The Host” that intrigued me. In an era of flicks with armies of zombies, honked-off ghosts, demon-seed kids, and worse, the endless series of deplorable “Saw”-like productions obsessed with sadism for its own sake, here was a good old-fashioned mega monster movie.
How long has it been since a new version of the I-can’t-believe-you-didn’t-see-it-comin-it’s-so-friggen-huge, citizen-stompin’, military-mashin’, one-monster tornado movie? The last new one I can recall Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” remake in 2005. Bfore that, probably the ‘98 “Godzilla” remake starring Matthew Broderick but where Jean Reno stole the show complaining about the lack of croissants. If there’s been anything since then, I can’t remember it. Help me out here, folks, have there been any other building-bashin’-sized monster movies lately?
It’s as though movie industries around the world decided that this genre of film just wasn’t cool any more – that audiences wouldn’t appreciate it ‘cause it wasn’t scary and the potential to be lame was too high. It’s as though “King Kong” was a one-off allowed in deference to Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” clout more than an appreciation of cinematic history. It’s as though the genre almost died.
And then along came director Joon-ho Bong with “The Host”.
Just like those famous beasts that stomped across the silver screens of yesteryear, the mega monster genre has risen again (if only for now) with this Korean gem.
The film centres on a Seoul family that’s pretty much like gum stuck to the bottom of society’s shoe: The grandfather at the head of the clan is a former carouser now eking an existence out of his snack shack in the park with his stupid and sleepy oldest son. His daughter ought to be a gold-medal archer but lacks the confidence to fully realize her potential. The younger son is an unemployed university graduate. The sole redeeming member of the family is number-one son’s 12-year-old daughter, Hyun-seo, who alternates between the roles of parent and child. The family is thrown into turmoil when a gigantic creature leaps out of the near-by Han River and begins its rampage, mashing some victims underfoot and swallowing others. One of those who winds-up in the belly of the beast is young Hyun-seo. The catch is that this critter seems to have a fairly slow digestive process, and if a person isn’t killed in the initial gulp, there’s a chance they may still be alive when the monster decides it’s eaten too much and regurgitates some of the bodies later. The girl, vomited up with a couple of corpses in a pit in a sewer, does what any smart 21st century kid does and scavenges a cell phone to call for help. But while her family members attempt to pull themselves together for a rescue, they’re hampered by government officials who refuse to believe the girl is alive, and who claim that anyone who’s been near the creature is now infected with a mysterious illness that makes SARS look like a summer cold.
“The Host” has it all: “gotcha” moments of thrills that make you jump in your seat, brooding atmospheres, well-rounded and realistic characters that you can believe in and cheer and worry about, social and political commentary (and while plenty of this is overt, some is couched in image and metaphor and requires some thought – something that helps give this creature feature a bite), a nod to monster movies of the past (there’s a clear connection of tradition between the original “Gojira”/”Godzilla”, awakened by nuclear testing and sent on a path of destruction through Japan, and the pollution-spawned creature of ‘The Host” which savages Seoul’s riverfront – it’s merely an update of the zeitgeist fears – what horrors will man’s irresponsible tinkering unleash), and best of all, it’s absolutely hilarious. And that’s not because the movie mocks itself. Far from it, the plot stays in character the whole time. The humour comes from the humanity… from the bickering, the bitterness, the misunderstandings and the natural stupidity of people, even those in tense situations.
A lot of the gags come from the main characters, but it’s a treat to see what’s happening with the supporting cast. I certainly wouldn’t want to spoil any of the laughs, but some of the funniest moments involve what’s happening in the background. In fact, it’s this layering of activity that shows just how smart this movie is. You’ve gotta have a huge amount of respect for a director who deliberately gives scene-stealers (whether they’re laughs or moments of terror or sadness) to the tertiary actors and extras, and who, by extension, gives the audience quick insights into a larger world involving more than the protagonists who we’re with for the ride. This is a crucial part of the success of this movie.
So let “The Host” invite you into its world for a while. It’s certainly worth the full price of admission.