The Host is another great example of what I love most about Korean movies: it’s a creature-feature, a family drama, a snotty satire and a thrill ride, all at the same time. It’s hard enough to make a movie in any one of those tones, but somehow Bong Joon-ho (director of the equally-excellent Memories of Murder) manages to round all four bases without stumbling. He accomplishes the same trick that Steven Spielberg did with the original Jaws, but in a slightly broader and more comic way: he makes you care about the people onscreen, too, so when the monster appears it’s not just chasing human chum.
Host stars one of my favorite Korean actors, Kang-Ho Song (he of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, JSA, Shiri, and Memories of Murder itself) as Gang-du, a shiftless fellow who runs a snack stand with his father, daughter and sister on the banks of Seoul’s Han River. He’s not much of a worker — in fact, he’s not much of anything — but he dearly loves his daughter Hyun-seo and does little things for her like sock away spare change to buy her a new cellphone. (Never mind most of that money has been skimmed from the till.) His father, Hee-bong (Hie-bong Byeon), indulges all of them, especially his son, now that there’s no mother around to do that job for them.
What starts as a gentle domestic drama (with some foreboding overtones) quickly turns
into a desperate race for survival that ranks with classics of the genre like Jaws.
For the first few minutes, though, the movie sets up broad hints about what else is to come. First a boneheaded American Army officer orders his Korean subordinate to pour hundreds of gallons of formaldehyde down the drain … and then, here and there, people spot something mighty odd swimming around in the Han, but can’t quite figure out what it is. Then Gang-du spots something hanging off a nearby bridge — and then pow! the creature leaps onscreen, in a long and perfectly executed and seamlessly assembled action scene that leaves people dead and Hyun-seo missing, snatched away by the monster’s giant prehensile tail. And it’s all Gang-du’s fault, because he grabbed the wrong girl’s wrist while running like hell. Shame on him.
This is, I think, the key to how the movie works: they use black humor — and humor in general — as a spacer and a leavener, a way to keep the rest of the movie’s material properly paced and deployed. Look at the scene where the family grieves for little Hyun-seo, and are so broken up with misery that the whole thing inadvertently turns into a sodden wrestling match on the floor. Reporters run up and snap pictures. When the family stages an escape from the hospital where they’ve been quarantined so they can go rescue the girl, they see themselves on TV being badmouthed by the duty nurses; when they reach a checkpoint, they bribe the officials there with a ramen bucket full of quarters.Much of the not-so-hidden political side of the film is aimed both at ham-handed American interventionism (where the way to fix things is to simply blow them up)and the way the countries that become the target of same fold like three-legged card tables when confronted with it.
The Host stands out all the more for being acerbic and wittily nasty as well as
a thrill machine — and it does both without falling down on either side.
People weaned on conventional American action movies might be a bit annoyed by the way The Host isn’t a thrill ride from start to finish. Yes, there’s a fair amount of action, but it’s not the main reason for the movie’s existence — although when it does come, it’s handled with a crazy, half-improvised feel. No plan ever works as described in the film, because that would be boring. The set-ups — like Gang-du’s sister, the archery expert with a penchant for stalling badly — are held in reserve for as long as possible so that they actually feel like payoffs when they do happen.
Then there’s the creature itself. It’s been a long time since we had a truly memorable movie monster, and The Host gives us one. This beast is never less than convincing when it’s on screen — it’s insanely acrobatic, it runs with a weird, galloping gait that is messy and organic, and the camera and action move so freely around it and with it, you’re convinced it’s alive, not just a pile of CGI. It’s also not so colossal that we have no direct connection with what’s going on — which is important in a movie that tries to involve us with more than just sheer spectacle. And most interestingly, it even exhibits behavior above and beyond that of a mere animal, as in a moment where Hyun-Seo tries to engineer an escape and the creature does something that I can only describe as being in the blackest possible humor. Kind of like the movie itself, which also has sense enough to close on just the right kind of upbeat note without being maudlin.