Host, The (2007)

Reviewed By Todd LaPlace
Posted 04/11/07 16:27:01

"Look out! It’s a scaly, fish-like reptilian creature thing!"
5 stars (Awesome)

I have one complaint about South Korean monster movie “The Host,” and although it’s relatively small, it still seems like a big oversight. Why doesn’t the film’s scaly, fish-like reptilian creature thing have a name? With the obvious exception of Godzilla himself, I know almost nothing about any of the other standard monsters, except for their names. I can’t even tell you what Mothra, Megalon and Gamera look like, but for some inexplicable reason, their names are safely tucked away with the rest of my useless movie knowledge (after careful research on Wikipedia, I discovered that one is a fire-breathing giant turtle!). This new creature would be so much easier to talk about if it just had a name, because I can guarantee I’ll be praising this stellar film for years to come.

Who knew that Steven Spielberg was such a hack? When Bruce the mechanical shark malfunctioned on the set of “Jaws,” Spielberg went for the minimal approach and built tension by not showing you the great white shark, inadvertently creating a high-end scary movie guidepost. Maybe it’s just because CGI monsters have replaced faulty mechanical beasts, but Bong Joon-ho, director of South Korean monster movie “The Host,” only waits a couple of minutes before his scaly, fish-like reptilian creature thing makes his first appearance dangling from a bridge over Seoul’s Han River. What a debut too, as its initial rampage is one of the most entertaining sequences I’ve seen in years. The creature, with its mouth that looks like a blooming flower (of death, of course) and prehensile tale that’s as adept at grabbing folk as it is at knocking them 50 yards with a casual swing, comes ashore to run amok among a group of picnickers, choosing which ones look good enough to eat and bring back to its sewer lair, one of whom is precocious schoolgirl Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung), the daughter of a local merchant that threw a beer at the creature before it started snatching people.

Bong, whose previous feature “Memories of a Murder” earned him plenty of critical praise, has managed to find the perfect balance between horror, comedy and social awareness. When the creature isn’t out causing a panic, the story focuses on the misadventures of Hyun-seo’s family; her sleepy slacker father Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), her alcoholic and overeducated uncle (Park Hae-il), her indecisive archery champion aunt (Bae Du-na), and her weary grandfather (Byeon Hie-bong), who must be tired after raising such a dysfunctional family. At a memorial service for all of those killed by the creature, the entire family vocally weeps in front of Hyun-seo’s photo, until they start infighting about whose fault her death was (while running away, Gang-du and Hyun-seo tripped, and Gang-du mistakenly grabbed the wrong girl’s hand, leaving his daughter back in harm’s way) and end up whaling in a big comedic heap on the floor. A man in an orange hazmat suit ended up joining them after taking a fall of his own, shortly after trying (and failing) to get the nightly news to report the situation to the grieving families.

The news, however, is less comical. After an American soldier that came in contact with the creature starts showing signs of illness, it’s assumed that the creature is host to a new kind of disease, and all those at the park will have to be examined, and in the case of Gang-du, who actually got some of its blood on him, quarantined for study. The creature causes a new mass hysteria, reminiscent of the recent SARS panic, complete with omnipresent surgical masks for all. Although the social commentary does elevate “The Host” beyond a simple monster movie, his biggest potential downfall is that he often still undercuts it with humor, arguably to the point of excess. While a group of people stand at a bus stop in the rain, one of their fellow travelers starts to cough a little bit, causing the people next to him to inch away. He starts a near panic among them when he spits into the storm drain, only to have a bus splash them with the same water a second later. It’s easily one of the funniest scenes in the film, but it’s also largely unnecessary as it adds nothing more than a few moments of unrelated comic relief. The same is true when a nurse examining Gang-du later claims that she caught arthritis from him. They’re certainly funny moments, but added together, they threaten the tension built up during the rest of the movie.

Like most teenagers, Hyun-seo spent most of her time complaining about her ancient, faulty cell phone to the point where her father wanted to buy her a new one and started pinching change from the family’s squid stand (that is, when he wasn’t too busy swiping tentacles from customers’ orders). Her phone does prove useful, of course, when she’s able to make a call from inside the creature’s sewer home. While the creature’s other victims were all killed (although many uneaten bodies share her new home), she somehow managed to live, but with the Americans threatening to dose the creature with a toxic gas called Agent Yellow, she must find a way to escape before she’s killed too. But with Gang-du in quarantine and Hyun-seo already on the deceased list, no one believes she can still be alive, meaning it’s up to the entire family to find a way to escape and rescue her — before snacktime, that is.

“The Host,” or “Gwoemul” as its known in South Korea, has quickly become an international smash, after first becoming the highest grossing film in South Korean history. I can’t help but wonder then why it’s been relegated to arthouse theaters in the U.S., especially after the disastrous American remake of “Godzilla” got massive national distribution. I still remember the secrecy hoopla around Godzilla himself, which lasted right up until the day it opened and ads for the action figure ruined everything they had done. When “The Host” is inevitably remade by some inept American director who will hire the star of some crap Disney Channel show to star as Hyun-seo (probably renamed Hailey), I’m sure it’ll become just as big a big-budget bust, especially after its dumbed down to exclude the social subtexts. Therefore, save yourself all the hassle and unnecessary hype, and just see the original now, why you’ve still got a chance. I promise it’s worth it.

After thinking about movie monsters for the past few hours, something finally clicked in my brain and I’ve reached a new level of understand. In the “South Park” episode “Mecha-Streisand,” I already knew that Babs becomes a Godzilla-like creature, but it just occurred to me that Robert Smith of The Cure becomes a Mothra-like creature and Sidney Poitier becomes a Gamera-like creature. Apparently Leonard Maltin’s monster is similar to a Japanese character called Ultraman, but no matter what he becomes, he’ll always stay a douche to me.

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