Host, The (2007)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/09/07 00:16:21

"Little Miss Sunshine Vs. The Smog Monster"
5 stars (Awesome)

The new Korean import “The Host” is a film that simultaneously tries to be a comedy-drama about a dysfunctional family pulling itself back together, a barbed political satire about the disasters that can develop from government ineptitude (both before and after the fact) and an all-out monster movie extravaganza that pays homage to the classics of the genre while at the same time slyly subverting all the familiar cliches. Even if the end result hadn’t been particularly good, I might have still found myself applauding director Bong Joon-ho simply for having the nerve to attempt something so ambitious in the first place. And yet, the most amazing thing about “The Host” is not the fact that Bong has tried to pull off such an audacious juggling act but the fact that he has done it so successfully.

After a prologue that shows an American military official ordering the dumping of many ominous bottles of formaldehyde into the Han River back in 2000, “The Host” fast-forwards a few years to introduce us to the estranged members of the Park family. Patriarch Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong) runs a small and not especially prosperous snack stand on the banks of the river. Older son Kang-du (Song Kang-ho) is a lazy oaf who can barely keep awake during his shifts at the stand. Younger son Nam-il (Park Hae-il) is spending his post-collegiate years grumbling about the unfairness of the world instead of getting a job. Daughter Nam-joo (Doo-na Bae) is an archer for the national team but her mystifying inability to launch her arrows quickly prevents her from becoming a champion. The only thing that these people have in common is their shared love for Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung), Kang-du’s adorable daughter that he has been raising by himself since her mother split right after having her.

Just when you think that “The Host” is about to turn into a Korean “Little Miss Sunshine,” it takes a strange turn when an honest-to-goodness monster–imagine the potential offspring of a drunken hookup between a rhino and the Alien–pops out of the river for a brief orgy of death and destruction before disappearing with Hyun-seo clutched in one of its tentacles. The rest of the Parks are hysterical with grief in every sense of the word at their loss (at one point, they writhe on the ground and wail in an over-the-top manner not usually seen outside of an early John Waters film) until Kang-du receives a phone call from Hyun-seo that proves she is still alive. When they are unable to convince the government officials that have quarantined them that Hyun-seo is alive, the Parks break out of detention and track her down to the sewers in order to rescue her before either the monster or the government–which has decided to use an untested chemical weapon to destroy the creature–can finish her off for good.

Although it is being positioned in the press primarily as a monster movie, “The Host” has so much more going for it that even those who aren’t normally predisposed towards such things are liable to come away from it more than satisfied. The material involving the Parks and their strange family dynamic is developed in such a way that allows us to relate to them as three-dimensional people instead of simply as cardboard caricatures ready for the slaughter. The Parks may be somewhat odd but they are endearingly so and when they finally begin to work together, the actors instantly create the sensation that we are watching a real family in action. Because of this, we find ourselves cheering at their moments of triumph both as individuals and as a group and when tragedy occurs, it hits those of us in the audience with the kind of genuine force that isn’t seen too often in genre films these days. As for the political elements, Bong does an effective job of blending together darkly satirical material with a genuine sense of anger at ineffectual government bodies that cause, directly or indirectly, great hardships and disasters and then spend most of their time trying to cover up their actions than aiding the people that they have harmed through those actions. (In case anyone plans on accusing the film of gratuitous anti-Americanism by having an American military man being responsible for the dumping of the formaldehyde, it should be noted that this bit was inspired by a real-life incident in 2000.)

At its heart, though, “The Host” is a monster movie and on that level, it is pretty spectacular. One of the most impressive things about it is the way that Bong slyly shuffles the deck so that even those with a pronounced taste for the genre will find themselves put off-guard. In most monster movies, it is a generally-held tradition that the creature is largely kept off-screen for the first hour or so except for the occasional brief glimpse of a claw or a glaring eye. When we get our first vague glimpse of the creature at the beginning of the film as it dangles underneath a bridge before slipping into the water, it seems as if Bong is going to play by those rules. Just as that thought comes to mind, however, we are stunned to not only get a full-on glimpse of the beast in all its glory (designed in part by WETA, the effects shop responsible from the “Lord of the Rings” movies) but an extended sequence of it wreaking havoc that is funny, scary, breathlessly exciting and a technical tour de force to boot. (Adding immeasurably to the effectiveness of the sequence is the use of hand-held cameras that subtly give us the suggestion that we are really seeing these events unfold before our eyes.) Throughout the rest of the film, Bong subverts genre expectations in ways both small (the creature is relatively small in stature when compared to the usual gargantuan beasts usually seen in these movies and is therefore slightly more realistic) and large (to say any more along these lines would be to give away some major plot developments) and even when he follows the standard template, he makes sure to have some fun with it. In a film of this type, there is almost always a scene in which some dopes are lured into a trap that ends with them becoming snacks for the monster–we get one of those here but the real fun comes from the bait the beast uses to ensnare them.

Although it may run just a little too long for its own good, “The Host” is a blast from start to finish that genre nuts and novices should find equally endearing. The only problem is that even though it is as crowd-pleasing of a film as you can imagine, the vagaries of foreign-film distribution in America means that unless it unexpectedly catches on in a big way, most audiences will never get a chance to see the film on the big screen (where it will be most fully appreciated) and will have to wait until it hits DVD to experience it for themselves. (Of course, this hasn’t stopped Universal from snapping up the remake rights.) That said, I’m here to tell you that no matter how far out of your way you have to go to see “The Host” in a theater with an appreciative crowd, it will be more than worth your time and effort. Besides, if the Parks can pull themselves together and face unspeakable dangers to save young Hyun-seo, the least you can do is drive a couple of towns over in order to watch them do so.

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