Host, The (2007)

Reviewed By Scott Weinberg
Posted 09/09/06 10:53:49

"Trim a little fat off this monster and you've got a cult classic."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2006 TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL: It'd probably be easier to list the genres that "The Host" DOESN'T cover than the ones it does. So ... it's not a musical.

Sci-fi, action, horror, comedy, adventure, drama... There's a little bit of everything in Bong Joon-ho's Gwoemul (aka The Host) -- almost to a fault. At 119 minutes, there's a small amount of fat on the flick; one suspects that Magnolia Pictures (the North American distributor) will probably agree with me and shave a good 15-20 minutes off the film. Hopefully you'll be able to check out the trimmings in the Deleted Scenes section of the DVD, because with just a few snips here and there, The Host is entirely destined for cult favorite status.

The setting is the Han River in Korea, which is where we open with hundreds of happy folks spending a pleasant day in the sun. But wait ... what's that huge gloppy thing hanging off the bridge?? Wait, it just splashed into the river -- and it's swimming this way!!

Out of the river pops a massive, ravenous creature that looks like a cross between a giant tadpole and something that crawled out of the Sarlaac pit. "The Host" bounds across the riverside, chomping up citizens left and right, and grabbing a few extra snacks with its tail. One of the "nearly eaten" is a sweet teenaged girl called Hyun-seo, who is snatched away by the beastie as her father looks on in terror.

The Korean government, however, seems more concerned with a (possibly fictional) virus that the creature may (or may not) be carrying, which explains why officials spend more time throwing people into quarantine than actively chasing the monster down. But when Hyun-seo's loyal family of bickerers (dad, aunt, uncle and grandfather) manage to escape from the hospital, they head off on a rescue mission that's as ill-planned as it is half-baked.

The best monster movies always have a satisfying degree of subtext beneath their front layers of mayhem; Godzilla was about the abuse of atomic power; King Kong was about ancient, natural beauty being destroyed by modern-day ignorance. And The Host is about not only the dangers of pollution, but also our inherent distrust of the government. That the Korean powers-that-be are more worried about a brand-new viral epidemic (one that most likely doesn't even exist) while a real and obvious monster invades the countryside is only one of The Host's more intelligently satirical touches.

But don't let themes, metaphors and subtext get you down; The Host, first and foremost, is a very fine piece of monsterrific mayhem. The special effects used to bring the creature to cinematic life are really quite excellent, and the frequent beastie bites should tickle even the most jaded horror freak. And once the Park family members get separated and continue to search for little Hyun-seo in their own individial plot threads, The Host starts to feel like a multi-pronged adventure epic. Plus there's a generous dose of broad (yet successful) moments of levity, which certainly help to keep the flick moving along ... and at two full hours in length, The Host needs a little jump-start every 30 minutes or so.

Indeed, the one genre strain that doesn't seem to work is the dramatic one. The Park family spends one particularly long and arduous scene eating, talking, and nodding off to sleep; audience members might be tempted to do the same during this sequence. Director Bong Joon-ho does a great job of giving each member of the Park family their own distinct and colorful set of character traits (Dad's a slacker goofball, Aunt is an archery champion, Uncle is an angry troublemaker, Grandpa is devoted and sweet), but the scenes that focus on straight melodrama really manage to grind the flick to a halt on two or three occasions.

But a small handful of "slow spots" is not enough to extinguish the fun found here. "The Host" is a smart, funny, creepy, and frequently exciting monster epic packed with strong effects, solid action scenes, several colorful characters, and (best of all) a whole lot of random chompings. The 2-hour version earns a solid 4 stars on its own, but I suspect Magnolia could make the flick even better with a handful of snips here and there.

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