It would be understandable to mistake Bong Joon-ho
's exceptional The Host for a monster movie; it's got all the tell-tale signs. There's a monster that terrorizes a seaside community next to Seoul's Han River, munching down on harmless citizens and dragging some of them back to its sewer for an Atkins-approved midnight snack. True to form, The Host has the makings of a grade-A monster mash, but it's actually not really about that; at least not exclusively.
The monster (visually, it resembles the love child of a school of guppies and a dragon) takes Hyun-Seo (Ko A-sung
), a young girl, down to its lair to be kept for later snacking. Hyun-Seo happens to be the glue holding a family together: Her lazy dad Gang-du (Song Kang-ho
) is constantly debased by his two siblings, who consider him a loser, and scolded by her grandfather (Byun Hee-bong
). The attack brings the family together, however, as they escape a hospital quarantine to track her down and destroy the beast. Article continues below
A huge hit at last year's Cannes and New York Film Festivals (not to mention the highest grossing film in Korean history), Bong Joon-ho's third feature has the thick consistency of a richly-blended pastiche, amply applying the monster movie as both the catalyst and focal point of a dysfunctional family drama. As if this didn't make it multifaceted enough, the political subtext palpitates like a five-year-old's heart after a bunch of Red Bulls. Born from a negligent American scientist's disdain for dust and ignorance of regulations, the beast is given the name The Host on account of the USA military belief that it carries a disease. This gives reason for the military to deploy a chemical bomb -- Agent Yellow, which resembles the monster in its docile state -- to destroy the monster and the disease. As it turns out, there's little proof of the disease's existence at all.
Ugly with fish carcasses and sewage baked into its reptilian skin, visual effects maestros at The Orphanage and John Cox's Workshop have created the most original visage of creature terror to be thrown on the screen in decades. A veritable maze of razor-sharp teeth and lassoing tongues under a clamping beak, The Host leaps and bounds across the Han River Bridge with the grace and direction of a Russian trapeze artist. Likewise, the actors all expertly explore their characters; the alcoholic brother gets expertly sketched by Park Hae-il, while Bae Doon-ha reworks the configuration of an unconfident athlete to dazzling measures.
Pregnant with metaphors and layered like Momma Lamenta's homemade lasagna, The Host is built for comfort, not speed. From five minutes in, we know what the monster looks like, and there is little effort put into disguising it because it's not a film built around a monster; it's built around the human reaction to a crisis. Though this removes some thrills from the film, it also alleviates the gimmickry that tends to plague typical monster movies (Exhibit A: The Relic). Following his moody procedural Memories of Murder, Joon-ho has crafted a distinct, deftly-calibrated Tilt-a-Whirl that fluidly shifts from fright to heartbreak to humor and back to humane without a bump in narrative kinetics. In comparison to America's highest-grossing film, Joon-ho's nightmarish mutant might be exactly what our Western shores need.