Park Gang-du (Kang-ho Song) runs a snack stall on the banks of the Han River in Seoul with his father, who constantly berates him for being slow and lazy. He lives for his young teenage daughter Hyun-seu (Ah-sung Ko), who – in typical teenage fashion – is mostly embarrassed by her father. One day, the crowds by the banks of the river are startled to see a strange creature dangling from one of the bridges. It drops into the water, and then suddenly it’s careening down the riverbank, trampling through hoards of screaming bystanders. In the ensuing pandemonium many are killed, and Hyun-seu is snatched by the creature and taken into the river. Everyone believes Hyun-seu is dead, but later Gang-du receives a faint phone call that he believes is from his daughter. With the help of his sister Nam-ju (Du-na Bae) - a failed archer - and his unemployed graduate brother, Gang-du resolves to rescue his daughter. The dysfunctional family’s quest is made even harder by the intervention of the US, who declares that the creature is the host to a deadly virus, placing the whole area into quarantine and holding prisoner anyone who came into contact with the beast.
‘The Host’ has – quite rightly – been picking up huge amounts of hype since it’s rapturous premiere in Cannes, and becoming the first film to generate over 13 million ticket sales in Korea in the process. Most of the reviews in the West have been quick to cite such monster movies as ‘Jaws’ and ‘Jurassic Park’, although in actuality the film owes little to Spielberg, and may well confound those looking for a traditional straight-ahead creature feature. Instead, this is quite characteristically the work of Bong Joon-ho, the director of acclaimed serial killer film ‘Memories of Murder’ and dognapping comedy ‘Barking Dogs Never Bite’, who has developed one of the most distinctively individual voices in modern Korean cinema. It’s a startling blend of character-led drama, genuine darkness, random acts of violence, emotional power, and a huge streak of absurdist humour – not to mention a predilection for having face-on shots of actors looking and speaking directly into the camera. The way in which the director is able to blend such disparate elements and swing confidently from one extreme to another in a matter of seconds is encapsulated in the scene in which Hyun-seu is snatched. Running in dramatic slo-mo from the creature whilst leading his daughter by the hand, Gang-du looks back and realises that in the confusion he’s grabbed the hand of the wrong girl. It’s a laugh-out-loud moment, which is immediately shattered by devastating tragedy as his daughter is caught and presumed killed because of his mistake. The film is not as purely comedic as say ‘Shaun of the Dead’, but ‘The Host’ often feels closer in spirit to that film than it does to ‘Jaws’. If the humour in ‘Memories of Murder’ put you off, then be warned that the humour ‘The Host’ is much broader and more plentiful than in that film. The key difference however, is that ‘Memories…’ had to be respectful in its use of humour owing to its real-life story status, whilst ‘The Host’ – like the wonderful ‘Barking Dogs…’ – is a work of fiction, and a piece of pure entertainment.
So yes, ‘The Host’ is a very funny film, but that humour is also mixed with some great monster action. As the giant squid/tadpole/thing swings into action, the film is breathlessly exciting, boasting a couple of genuine shocks, as well as some truly nail-biting tension. The creature doesn’t look entirely realistic, but there’s a weird energy to the way it moves onscreen that is hugely appealing (the way it swings along underneath the bridge is genius), and the effects (save for the flames at the climax) are pretty damned good. Any monster movie fan will have a hard time suppressing a grin every time the creature appears onscreen.
What makes the monster scenes so effective is not so much in the greatness of the creature (though it is most assuredly fine), but in the fact that it’s being pitted against some well-drawn and sympathetic (if endearingly useless) human characters that we can really root for. The cast is mostly drawn from Bong Joon-ho regulars, including the marvellous Kang-ho Song, Hie-bong Byeon and Hae-il Park from ‘Memories of Murder’, whilst Du-na Bae (‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance’) made her acting debut in ‘Barking Dogs…’. All turn in top quality performances, and nail the difficult mix of comedy and drama with aplomb, and credit must also be given to the strong turn by young Ah-sung Ko as the most intelligent and resourceful of the clan. Even though it’s pretty obvious that the search for Hyun-seu will help the family overcome their differences and band together, the way in which this happens feels genuinely believable and warmly affecting in a way most trite Hollywood films couldn’t manage, and ultimately it’s this element that makes the film rise above its peers.
Beyond the humour, action and drama, there is also a certain sly political undercurrent detectable in the film. It’s suggested that the creature is caused by mutation led on by the mass dumping of formaldehyde into the river – something insisted upon by a US scientist, and which is apparently inspired by a real incident. Meanwhile, the strong-arm intervention of the US military can be read as a commentary on Iraq, with the chaos and devastation caused by the search for the phantom virus the creature hosts standing in for weapons of mass destruction. Thankfully it’s not too sledgehammer-unsubtle in its application of these ideas, and there’s more than enough happening on the surface to help you overlook subtexts if you so choose – but it’s nice to know they’re there if you want them. Certainly one of the most intriguing elements of the film is that the biggest obstacles the family faces in it’s quest to rescue Hyun-seu are those presented by other people – whether they be Government officials, crazy scientists, the military, or bounty hunters – rather than from the creature itself.
Overall, whilst ‘The Host’ may befuddle some viewers with its scenes of broad humour, it should find a wide audience beyond those who are already conditioned to the schizoid world of Bong Joon-ho, as this is one of the most unusual and refreshing blockbusters to have come along in ages. It’s a breathlessly madcap, gloriously rollicking rollercoaster ride of a film, and the purest slice of sheer cinematic entertainment this year.
Magnolia releases The Host in two standard def versions for US Audiences (as well as in both HD formats); a one-disc edition, and a feature-packed 2-disc Collector's Edition, loaded with behind-the-scenes featurettes (blessedly subtitled), a gag reel, deleted scenes, and much, much more.