This film is playing at the 44th New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. It’s playing Saturday, October 7 at midnight and Monday, October 9 at 3:30. For information on how to get tickets, click here. Be aware that even if a show is sold out there will be a Rush line, where you may have a chance to get seats or meet today’s Tom Sawyer.
Some monster movies might hold back on the beast, slowly building tension and horror by hiding it in the shadows. Joon-ho Bong’s The Host doesn’t have the patience for that, though; the fish-frog-thing monster shows up about ten minutes into the film, in broad daylight, going nuts on a group of people in a riverside park. The monster isn’t Godzilla sized – it’s about fifteen to twenty feet tall – but it’s got the appetite of a much bigger beastie and it happily chows down on dozens.
One of the victims of that first attack is schoolgirl Park Hyun-seo. Her bumbling, dimwitted father (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance’s Song Kang-ho) loses her in a crowd and watches in horror as the monster grabs her with its tail and drags her off. The family, which includes a grandfather, an ex-student activist brother and an archer sister, is devastated. And things get worse – it turns out that the monster is a mutant, and it seems that it carries some kind of virus. The family is quarantined but soon escapes when Hyun-seo manages to get a cell phone call out of the monster’s sewer lair. These four strikingly unlikely and endlessly dysfunctional family members have to find the little girl and in the process save the city from this hungry monster.
The Host is a throwback to the kind of monster movies the US made in the 50s, but instead of blaming it all on radiation the film uses a real incident as a springboard for monster creation – an American army official forces a Korean to dump bottle after bottle of dangerous chemicals right into a drain that leads to the Han River. It’s just the first of The Host’s none-too subtle jabs at the massive military power in South Korea’s midst. In Korea the title of the film is The Creature, but The Host seems to work on more levels in this case.
Bong juggles the needs of a giant monster film – fun carnage – with the stuff that he seems to be most interested in, which is political satire and quirky family dynamics and comedy. The Park family is gloriously just-below-average and inept, exactly the last kind of people you would expect to save the day in any other monster film. Single dad Gang-du is especially dopey, which makes his unbridled heroism all the more touching as he stops at nothing – including brain surgery – to save his daughter.
The monster itself is very well designed but dodgily realized. It looks a little bit like something that would live in the Core of Naboo, but much meaner, and it runs quickly and devours mercilessly. The beast saves up the people it swallows in its stomach, vomiting them out at the lair to digest at a later time. Hyun-seo tries to stay alive in the sewer lair amid the corpses, a proposition that gets more difficult when a young homeless boy survives a trip in the monster’s belly and comes under her care.
Once the Park family escapes quarantine they have to deal with the fact that the whole riverside has been shut down as the US Army comes in to try and kill the monster as well as disinfect the area. Soon the decision is made to cleanse the whole city with a potentially deadly chemical agent known as Agent Yellow. The family races against time – and the eventual detonation of the Agent Yellow device – to figure out how to save their girl.
Bong has worked a tonal miracle here – he’s made a movie that elicits laughs, groans, screams and winces yet never lets one upstage the others. The Host is funny but it’s also a real monster movie, working within most of the genre’s conventions even as it tweaks them. And while the family business is often quirky and funny it’s also touching and warm.
The Host suffers from being a little long – when I first heard it was two hours I wondered how the hell you could stretch a monster movie out that much. Bong does it mostly successfully thanks to the wonderful characters, but towards the third act you’re feeling the hand of the screenwriter as more obstacles keep getting placed in front of the family. It’s all worth it, though, as the movie comes to a rousing climax where the family battles the beast, and an eventual ending that would never make it through a Hollywood studio.
Sadly, too many of my readers will have to wait to see The Host on DVD, even when it is released in the US at the end of January. If you do find that the movie is playing near you, do yourself a favor and see it on a big screen. Don’t import the DVD or download it from the net; The Host is a movie that should be seen in a dark theater filled with likeminded monster movie fans.