In 1954, the iconic Japanese monster movie “Godzilla” arose from that country’s post-World War II fear of more possible nuclear attacks. Over 50 years later, it seems that America is still inspiring new kinds of monster mayhem, as illustrated by the impressively sleek South Korean import “The Host.”
Just because the film has obvious political overtones, though, don’t let that fool you into thinking that writer/director Bong Joon-ho’s genre-mixing creature fest is some lofty art house picture. The origin of the film’s amphibious creature may be firmly planted at the doorstep of U.S. hubris, but “The Host” is strictly populist fare, ironically owing much to the best of American blockbusters.
In the movie’s opening scene, bottles of formaldehyde are poured down a drain in a U.S. army base, carrying the toxic substances into Seoul’s main river. An official, in overstated “ugly American” mode, orders the dumping over the objection of a Korean subordinate simply because the bottles are too dusty. (This pivotal plot point was actually inspired by a real-life incident in 2000 involving a U.S. mortician named Albert McFarland.) Six years later, a giant mutated tadpole emerges from the water to wreak havoc on the local park-goers and kidnap a young girl named Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung).
It is only 10 minutes into “The Host” that the monster, a 20-foot tall beast with frog legs and a protruding jaw that opens up into quarter sections, starts chomping humans on the banks of the river. Part terrifying chase scene and part slapstick comedy, this energetic FX-driven moment kicks the movie into overdrive right away. Bong’s camera takes the point of view of Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), the little girl’s loafing father, who suddenly springs to life to save his daughter. Like Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” witnessing the action through the eyes of the main character only heightens the dramatic effect.
“The Host” didn’t become South Korea’s all-time box office champ by relying on cheap thrills alone. It broadens its scope by becoming a dysfunctional family comedy as well. Gang-du’s father sells food out of a trailer, while his brother is a bitterly unemployed university graduate, and his sister is a bronze medalist in archery. When they get together at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the monster’s attack, the mood abruptly shifts from somber to absurd. Paparazzi photographers close in on the family as they grieve, writhing on the floor in pain. As the camera pulls slowly away from above, their agony (and over-articulated gyrations) is simultaneously played for laughs.
The glum seriousness of Asian horror wave makes like “The Ring,” “The Grudge,” and “Dark Water” are a stark contrast to a horror movie that veers this wildly between scares and uncomfortable silliness. Dark humor is sprinkled throughout at seemingly inappropriate times, but what is remarkable about “The Host” is that it never veers off into campy territory. Besides the family, who finally begin to bond over finding young Hyun-seo, even the monster has comic tendencies. A bit of a show-off, it toys with humans, dangling them stupidly out of its mouth when distracted by another one.
Focusing on the family deepens the film but it also lets pace up, and “The Host” drags a bit in the middle. There are some nagging inconsistencies with the monster’s creation, too—are there also mutant turtles lurking in the river? Perhaps Bong is just keeping the possibilities for a sequel wide open. The ending, while emotionally satisfying and not nearly as tidy as one might expect, is a little overwrought. It features an annoying and melodramatic musical score, and enough slow motion shots to make “300” jealous.
In South Korea, where the U.S. maintains a steady military presence, our country’s role in the creation of the monster and its ensuing virus probably seems very believable, but American audiences might find it a little shocking that we have a Big Brother kind of omnipotence there. What’s worse, an American chemical weapon called Agent Yellow (again, not very subtle) is eventually used, and everything our scientists say about the virus is wrong. “The Host” portrays a South Korea yearning to break free of U.S. influence. Outside the obvious political allegory, it also catches fire on an emotional level, as a portrait of a working class family struggling to stay together.