Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A superior update of the old-fashioned monster movie formula, South Korea's The Host received a solid American theatrical release earlier this year based on glowing reviews that compared it to Steven Spielberg's Jaws. With U.S. audiences already attuned to the successful waves of "J-horror" films and itching for something new, Joon-ho Bong's expertly-made thriller was a refreshing change of pace: South Korea had previously dabbled in giant Sci-Fi giants only with a miserable monster called Yongary (1967 and 1999).
Park Hie-bong (Byun Hie-bong) runs a snack concession booth on the bank of Seoul's Han River, along with his slow-witted son Gang-du (Kang-ho Song). A huge and bizarre monster appears on a bridge and in the river, and suddenly goes on a rampage, killing many and snagging Gang-du's schoolgirl daughter Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko). Dragged away to the monster's lair, Hyun-seo is presumed dead as the authorities take drastic measures. Although nobody exhibits any symptoms, TV news spreads panic with the information that the monster carries a deadly virus. Hie-bong and Gang-du are placed in quarantine along with two more adult Parks, Olympic archer Nam-Joo (Du-na Bae) and unemployed college graduate Nam-il (Hae-il Park). Then Gang-du receives a cell phone call from the frantic Hyun-seo, who is alive and trapped in the monster's lair somewhere in the concrete storm drains feeding the Han River. Escaping from captivity, the dysfunctional Park family sets out to rescue their youngest member, despite martial law and what seems to be a preponderance of official lies: the United States eagerly seizes control of the situation and saturate the river area with a deadly chemical agent.
As one might say, this isn't your grandfather's aquatic monster. Director Joon-ho Bong introduces his hulking menace in the very first scene, in broad daylight on a sunny afternoon. Chul-hyun Baek, Joon-ho Bong and Jun-won Ha's smart script has a local Seoul flavor and a definite social agenda, although the politics are at all times subordinated to the monster story. For Korean viewers The Host's maladroit Park family may also represent the need for the younger generation to stand up and fight back against various forms of oppression, and not just the slippery green mutant from the Han River.
The unnamed monster is a genetic mess, looking like a perverted amalgam of various forms of sea life. It's been compared to a seagoing version of the giant earth slugs in the Tremors movies, with its similar overlapping mouth parts. A clever CGI concoction, the monster walks like a bipedal polliwog with a long, prehensile tail. Extra vestigial arms allow it to snag and drag several victims at once. It has mean-looking catfish eyes, parrotfish incisors and a snaky tongue. It's also as big as an RV, can run on land at about 30 mph, and has excellent reflexes. Its favorite stomping ground is under a large iron bridge over the Han River. The thing performs cartwheels along the bottom of the structure like a gymnastic Loch Ness Monster.
Monster movies have traditionally had difficulty integrating their genre thrills with a human element, a problem that The Host overcomes from the start. The Park family members aren't exactly mutants, but they're a long way from being model citizens, and we soon warm up to them. Gang-du is a pleasant slacker working in his dad's snack trailer; he has frequent narcoleptic time-outs that are blamed on a protein deficiency when he was a child. Due to his alcoholism, Hie-Bong's wife exited long ago and Gang-du's wife disappeared soon after giving birth to the cute and resilient Hyun-seo. Gang-du's jobless brother Nam-il is bitter about wealth inequity and has fond memories of student rebellions. He figures in a new attitude toward society split between have-not idealists and greedy self-seekers. The star of the family is Nam-Joo, who wins a bronze Olympic medal instead of a gold by defaulting on a crucial archery shot ... she just waited too long. The Park family is basically inoffensive, and even if they criticize one another, they band together determined to rescue the beloved Hyun-seo. In one of director Joon-ho Bong's interesting conceptual tricks, the absent Hyun-seo "joins" her family as they eat in preparation for hunting the monster. She belongs, even when she's not there.
The last time monster epics took a major conceptual leap forward was in the first two Alien movies, in which the military-industrial complex encourages the dangerous creatures as useful biological weapons. The twisted official response to the monster in The Host shows government authorities mostly ignoring the obvious mission -- destroying the monster threat -- and instead inaugurating martial law based upon the lie that the monster is spreading a deadly virus. 'Misinformation' propaganda pours out of TV screens backed only by what might be doctored photos of a purported virus victim. Meanwhile, Gang-du was splashed with monster fluids and blood while fighting the beast, and he's perfectly fine. A giant military-medical effort concentrates on spraying chemicals around the riverbanks and performing irresponsible 'medical' procedures on detainees. We learn that private companies are vying for lucrative pieces of the action. Meanwhile, the monster is free to stalk the bridge area and take what victims it can find. Somehow, this all seems like a metaphor for the Iraq war. As the Koreans lose control of the situation, the U.S. simply decides to move in and take over.
Poor little Hyun-seo endures a harrowing ordeal when the monster tosses her into an isolated storm drain with a number of corpses. She hides in a feeder pipe like one of the terrorized kids from Them!, except she keeps enough cool to use her head and look for an avenue of escape. While her family engages in a running shotgun battle with the monster, Hyun-seo looks for a working cell phone among the growing pile of bodies at the bottom of the pit. She's always at risk of being plucked off her feet by the creature's tentacle-like tail. In her schoolgirl uniform, Hyun-seo is a brave little monster-fighter, and our emotions are invested in her safe rescue.
The conclusion of Host shows Gang-du barely escaping atrocious brain surgery as koo-koo medicos search for a non-existent virus. Nam-il pinpoints Hyun-seo's exact location through cell phone records and text-messages it to Nam-Joo, who closes on the monster with her Olympic bow. With a bounty on all of their heads, greedy Salarymen are an obstacle but an uncouth homeless man proves to be an asset when it comes time to make Molotov Cocktails. The final showdown takes place on a bridge abutment, where protesters rally against the American decision to deploy a deadly gas called "Agent Yellow."
The negative attitude toward Americans figures strongly in the genesis of the monster, when we see a military doctor (Scott Wilson) ordering a lab worker to dump gallons of toxic formaldehyde into the drain system. Later on, Jonathan Demme's stock player Paul Lazar (he of the lazy eye) is the lead medico freak eager to cut open Gang-du's brain, even when he knows the virus to be a fraud.
The audience I saw the movie with loved it and I can certainly see franchise potential. I personally didn't find the show at all frightening, but that was not a drawback. I only wish the ending wasn't quite as downbeat ... it didn't need to be so negative.
Magnolia's DVD of The Host looks quite good. The picture had that heavy-CGI look on screen, with subdued colors and a digital lack of sharpness, but the enhanced DVD replicates it very well. We certainly see a lot of the fascinating monster and the show has an exciting, urgent feel.
A two-disc set with many more extras (along with an HD/Blu-ray) is being marketed concurrently but Savant was sent only this version for review. It has a number of interesting extras. A long index of deleted scenes shows other ordinary citizens reacting to the monster and alternate cuts of dialogue scenes, as well as a few snipped monster shots. We also see the full video news clips viewed during the movie.
The relaxed Joon-ho Bong delivers a full commentary with Tony Rayns. He starts by telling us that the movie was inspired by a real dump of toxic chemicals into the Han River by a U.S. Army medic, six years ago. Rayns suggests plenty of interesting questions and keeps the commentary on task: many of the cast members are from Joon-ho's previous films; a video game art director designed the monster.
Joon-ho Bong also appears on-screen in a nice 'director's reflections' extra that turns out to be a sincere apology to actors cut out of the film, or edited so as to be unrecognizable. He also apologizes for inconveniencing the public when he closed down roadways, etc. Now that's something new ... a gracious film director.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Host rates:
Supplements: Bonus Material
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 19, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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