- Bong Joon-ho
- Song Kang-ho, Byeon Hie-bong, Bae Du-na, Ko Ah-sung, Park Hae-il
- 119 min.
- Release Date
A unique mix of blockbuster entertainment and anti-government social commentary, the South Korean film The Host will forever raise your expectations for monster movies. Dripping with top-of-the-line special effects, an off-beat sense of humor, persistent family themes, and significant remarks on the futility of governmental reliance, it penetrates like no other movie of its kind. Based in part on fact, The Host’s first scene shows us an American mortician at a U.S. military facility in S. Korea who orders a Korean subordinate to dump an obscene amount of old formaldehyde down the drain, which then flows into Korea’s Han River. Corrupting nature, the chemicals birth a mutant monster—an agile, fishy quadruped creature that is larger than an elephant and has an appetite for people. Use your imagination to guess which part of the scenario isn’t real.
The monster emerges from the river and causes chaos throughout the city of Seoul and even kidnaps a young girl. The aftermath of the monster’s attack leaves the city fearing contagion from a virus the U.S. government claims the monster carries. Quarantining the Han in a lackluster fashion, neither the U.S. nor the S. Korean government efficiently handles the situation, leaving it up to the kidnapped girl’s family to get her back. Park Gang-Du (Song Kang-ho, star of the phenomenal South Korean pictures Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and J.S.A.: Joint Security Area) is the narcoleptic father of the kidnapped girl, Park Hyun-seo (first time actress Ko Ah-sung). Gang-Du, his father, his unemployed brother, and his sister (a bronze metal-winning archer) band together to rescue Hyun-seo. For fear of spreading the supposed infection, the family is held captive in a government hospital. When reasoning with the government and hospital officials fail, the family escapes and sets out along the quarantined Han River to kill the mutant beast—all the while attempting to avoid government authorities.
Granted, the actual events on which the film was based never generated a monster or virus, but in 2000, a U.S. military mortician was found guilty for ordering his Korean assistant to dump expired formaldehyde down the drain. Even though the American mortician was found guilty, much to the chagrin of S. Koreans he never served time or was punished for what he did. The film depicts some understandable antagonism toward the U.S. government because of these truths, but the audience doesn’t face bombardment by exclusively anti-American criticism; the South Korean government is just as deficient, taking every hint from the U.S. without a real autonomy of its own. Every attempt either government makes to resolve the issue of the monster or the contagion results in a foul-up or a lie.
The two governments in the story relate directly to the opening sequence with the American mortician and the Korean attendant: The S. Korean government takes orders, in a way, from the Americans; we see this as S. Korean citizens protest the U.S.’s decision on how to deal with the virus and the possible infection. The S. Koreans grudgingly go along with U.S. virus propaganda and even a plan to absolve the Han with “Agent Yellow” (a direct reference to Agent Orange). The director takes a shot at all governments for dismissing the voice of the people—the humanist argument—in a crisis situation. This social commentary doesn’t flood the film; it’s gently placed under the surface of an exciting and emotionally involving blockbuster. Breaking box-office records in South Korea, the film’s impressively small $10 million budget (which is a huge sum for a South Korean film) was optimized in every way. The Host has the look and special effects of a movie eight times its cost.
The story’s center remains the family: how they keep together through desperation and love, and how they persevere through tragedy. Bong, the director, sketches a loveable but broken group. I was struck by the film’s attention to character development, as most American blockbusters (especially American monster movies) lack the kind of sensitivity to family present here. Character development and appraisals of government policies significantly make up the subtext of the film, but the surface consists of a gripping horror picture. One scene shows the kidnapped Hyun-seo, left in the inescapable lair of the beast, watching as it brings back more victims on which it occasionally feeds. As she’s small enough to hide from it, she avoids being snacked-on herself, but that only means she is forced to observe as the creature vomits up the bones of its victims. Those horrific images are contrasted by the film’s subtle, sometimes infrequent humor, which is quirky, but admittedly absent from the second half of the picture. If kept throughout, the film wouldn’t have ended on such a low note.
The Host closes with a solemn moment somewhat uncharacteristic for American audiences traditionally catered to with a happy ending in a movie like this one—uncharacteristic, but altogether welcome. I was thrown-off at first by the finish. Now, given time to mull over the content, the finale concluded the film justly, ending just as a story about a monster born from bureaucratic ignorance should end. One could argue that the entire film is atypical; it tells a conventional story through unconventional means. The Host may seem familiar in the first half hour—so familiar that some compare it to Jaws—but it grows beyond a single genre or traditional blockbuster entertainment by including a political editorial alongside its slimy creature and big budget setup. The payoff comes when you leave the theater after just barely hanging on the edge of your seat for two hours—and wouldn’t you know it, you actually have something to talk about.