If there's one film that will plant South Korean cinema into the mind of the American public, The Host is it. Bong Joon-ho's lively feature provides all the thrills and sensation of the average American summer spectacle, except that it does so while still remaining a good movie. It's got heart, hilarity, triumph and tragedy as it gives us a fractured family that finally sets aside their differences and unites towards a common goal. It's also got a giant mutant fish-monster that tries to eat everything in its path.
Still with me? That's the kind of film that The Host is – able to shift tones on a moment's notice (often within the same scene), Bong uses all his formidable talents to bring respect to a disreputable genre. And thanks to his sure hand, somehow it all comes together.
The genesis of this giant mutant fish-monster comes in the year 2000 prologue, when an American government official, over the objections of his Korean subordinate, orders the disposal of several hundred bottles of formaldehyde (they were dusty). Flash forward to the present, when the monster crawls out of the Han River one fine summer day and wreaks a whole ton of havoc.
This is a spellbinding sequence – the first glimmer of the rampage comes when layabout snack-booth merchant Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) casually turns to his left and sees the beast running full bore at him, trampling or swallowing everyone in between, and the rest of the sequence has that same disbelieving, half-glimpsed quality about it. Most effective is the first tail whip, which would be played as a major shock-cut in Hollywood but here is viewed from a distance, which makes it somehow both more horrifying and weirdly funny.
The attack is all the more impressive for coming not fifteen minutes into a two-hour film; in lieu of arduous story setup, Bong quickly introduces the members of the Park family and jumps straight into the action, leaving the rest to be filled in on the fly as the remainder of the film proceeds. A significant portion of the family is elsewhere at the time — Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na) is on television attempting to win a gold medal in archery, while Nam-il (Park Hae-il) we learn of only in Gang-du's conversation with his daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung) about his showing up at parent-teacher day in place of the shiftless, borderline-narcoleptic Gang-du.
Among other things, Bong demonstrates with The Host that he's adept at the art of storytelling shorthand. In this early scene alone, he gives us quick sketches of five characters without feeling expository or leaving the snack shack run by Gang-du's father Hie-bong (Byoen Hie-bong), while simultaneously emphasizing the spatial separateness that is reflected by the family's emotional divisions. Both of these gulfs are closed in short order by a horrific event, and that's when the meat of The Host arrives on the scene.
It's a hell of an event, too: During the opening monster mash, Gang-du loses sight of where he's going, stumbles and accidentally lets go of Hyun-seo's hand. Just as he realizes his error, he turns to see Hyun-seo being swept up and carried away by the monster's tail.
Initially thinking her dead, the family is crushed. One night, though, Gang-du gets a call; the reception is full of static and the voice on the other end is difficult to hear, but it's definitely Hyun-seo. Before her cell phone dies, she manages to get across that she's alive in a sewer somewhere. The family then resolves to band together and save her… but first, they have to get out of quarantine. See, Gang-du got monster blood on him, and the monster might be carrying a new virus, so…
As you can see, there's a lot going on in The Host. I haven't even touched upon the political dimensions present within the progression of the plot — it was, after all, the order of an American soldier that caused the mutation in the first place, and as the crisis spins out further, there's talk of direct intervention. Bong isn't just indulging in America-bashing, though; the Korean government is consistently displayed as corrupt, inefficient, and incompetent (example: the scene where Gang-du and Hie-bong talk their way through a guard post using quick words, a stolen van, and a bucketful of change). The further along things go, the less willing anyone in charge is to admit mistakes, which leads to some unforeseen narrative complications. By the climactic showdown, the Park family appears to be the only hope for humanity – where the institutions fail, the family will persevere.
Lest I lose sight of my target, though, I might as well confess that this is all thematic gravy and the foremost intent of The Host is to entertain. Bong succeeds in this aim grandly. He throws so many balls in the air that it seems inevitable that some will fall, and while a couple subplots go unresolved, on the whole Bong keeps an admirable balance.
He's also not afraid to puncture the creeping seriousness of the situation with absurd comedy, such as the mourning scene degenerating into a thrashing slugfest between Nam-il and Gang-du or the hazmat-suited soldier who, in the middle of Hie-bong's vow of vengeance against the beast that assumedly killed his granddaughter and apropos of nothing, slips and falls.
The action scenes are also well-handled. While nothing quite tops the jaw-dropping frisson of the monster's introductory romp, Bong moves the film along at a crisp pace and keeps the tension at a rolling boil. Whether it's Nam-il giving an impromptu demonstration of his escape artist skills, Nam-joo attempting to get off an arrow at the monster before it runs her over, or Hyen-seo struggling to sneak out of the monster's lair without attracting attention, The Host keeps the excitement coming.
It's the finale, with its confrontation between an exhausted monster and a determined Park family, that drives home the true measure of Bong's achievement. The mutant fish is a means, not an end. While it's lots of fun to watch a big ugly something chow down, there needs to be something else down the line if a work of art is going to be more than a forgettable diversion. By not losing sight of the humanity of the situation, The Host succeeds in ways most genre efforts wouldn't think to consider.