Movie review by Greg Carlson
South Korean director Bong Joon-ho launches a madcap monster bash with “The Host,” an all over the map thrill-fest that boasts a beating heart to go along with its gaudy CGI. Making a few minor commercial strides in the United States, “The Host” calls to mind all sorts of low-grade creature features, but its breezily maintained political subtext directly invokes “Godzilla.” Fans of “bug on the run” movies will find much to cheer in Bong’s cleverly constructed world. The director knows that the creature will attract curiosity seekers, but sharp focus on a tightly knit, comically dysfunctional family provides the dramatic heft.
A brief prologue depicts a grim American military officer at a Korean base ordering an ill-advised down-the-sink disposal of what seems like a lifetime supply of formaldehyde. The noxious chemicals flow into the Han River, and before you can say “horrific mutation” a pair of fishermen discover something rather nasty in the water. Despite the nod to U.S. military hegemony, Bong is generally more interested in staging sensational kicks of action and excitement. For the most part, he gets to have his cake and eat it too, as a subplot cooks up a governmental plan to spray the frighteningly named Agent Yellow on the populace in order to contain purported contamination related to the monster.
“The Host” follows the well-worn rescue plot structure. After the grotesque tadpole-like beast demonstrates in spectacular fashion that it is as comfortable on land as it is in the water, it ensnares the young daughter of a riverside food stand proprietor. Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) is a phenomenally lazy clerk who sleeps on the job, sneaks food from customer orders, and takes lengthy breaks to watch his sister Nam-joo (Bae Du-na), a champion archer, compete on television. Despite his oafishness and sloth, Gang-du dotes on his daughter Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung), and Bong makes it clear that all in all, he’s not such a bad father. Once Hyun-seo has been captured by the icky critter, Gang-du and the rest of his family resolve to find her.
Alternating between scenes of familial squabbling and slapstick action, “The Host” somehow manages to mix elements of creepiness, comedy, and poignancy. Some viewers might need to take in a few scenes to adjust to the director’s antic style, but the freewheeling attitude of the movie turns out to be a major asset, since its combination of moods prevents it from bogging down in something akin to the oppressiveness of tone common to so many horror-themed stories. Despite the movie’s relatively small budget, Bong also shows how one can do much with little, as the sweeping, apocalyptic scale of the film’s final movement demonstrates a near epic grandiosity.
The pluck and determination of Gang-du’s family, which in addition to Nam-joo and Hyun-seo includes brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il) and patriarch Hie-bong (Byeon Hie-bong) is the glue that holds everything together. Bong, like Steven Spielberg, shows a particular flair for crafting recognizable human relationships amidst a supernatural backdrop. Also like Spielberg, Bong can stage feverish, dexterous set-pieces notable for spatial coherence. When the ugly behemoth attacks, it is clear where everything is in relation to the environment. “The Host” might not be a masterwork, but it virtually guarantees Bong employment for the foreseeable future.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/16/07.