A monster rises out of the Han River and attacks Seoul, South Korea like Godzilla armed with really good special effects. Bong Joon-ho, the director of the serial killer thriller “Memories of Murder”, follows that one up with this straight up monster flick, a thrilling popcorn selling horror movie in the tradition of “Jaws” that even echoes the post-Watergate politics of Spielberg’s film with its own post-9/11 vibes. But don’t think there’s any kind of Jack Handy deep thoughts here; “The Host” really is just a monster picture.
The film starts unconventionally for a monster movie, in that it starts immediately. Part of the tradition of monster movies is that since the monster looks so ridiculous, a good part of act one has to be built on foreshadowing and suspense trickery in order to keep the rubber puppet offscreen until as close to the fade out as possible. The skill of a monster movie director is normally judged on how well he juggles his screen action and narrative to keep the monster offstage. See Steven Spielberg’s work with Bruce the shark in “Jaws”, as that is clearly a textbook example.
Bong shakes up the genre by opening with his monster in full view. It’s just there — some kind of aqua-lizard thing that looks as real as anything else in the frame, tearing into the streets and swallowing up people whole. It’s about as damn realistic a sea creature as the spider thing from Peter Jackson’s “The Return of the King”. Part of its effect is that, while it’s big, it’s not the size of a house. Most monster movies figure, what the hell, if we’re gonna make this atom-bomb mutated trout anyway, we might as well make it as big as we can. That way, Clint Eastwood (see “Tarantula”) can show up out of nowhere in a fighter jet to bomb it like Hiroshima.
The problem with that idea is that the monster is so incredible in its size that it’s no longer scary. A cockroach the size of a house is absurd, but one about the size of my cat might be horrifying, simply because I have a better frame of reference for creatures of this size. Also, if you make the monster a little smaller, it can be made to respect the laws of gravity and the limitations of its own spatial physics.
Now, you might think that Bong Joon-ho has prematurely ejaculated by letting us see so much so early, but this is really a much better idea for a monster movie opening, beating the audience silly with tension and horror before slowing the movie down for those other little things like plot and character. If “The Host” featured nothing but these great effects and action, it would still be a pretty good night out. But the real benefit of showing the monster early is that you minimize the whole circus act of making the audience wait in anxious suspense to see the creature fx.
In most films, when the monster is revealed, so is the lack of budget and skill. It’s usually a big let down. Here, if you have any complaints about the monster, it’s right there, challenging you to make them. One reel into the film and you’ve already seen plenty of the monster, so you can just let it go. By shifting this single emphasis, Bong is able to reinvent the genre in his own way, focusing attention on the characters and storytelling instead of the carnival spectacle inherent in making a monster movie.
“The Host” centers on the Park family, who run a snack bar on the banks of the Han River. The snack bar is owned by Park Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong), a man in his late 60’s disappointed in his eldest son Gang-du, who is both incompetent and lazy, and whose wife him and their young daughter Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung) long ago. When the monster sweeps Hyun-seo up and whisks her off, the Park family is devastated. When they learn she is being kept alive by the monster for some nasty reason, they decide to rescue her. Hee-bong and Gang-du are joined by the unemployed youngest brother, Nam-il (Park Hae-il), and sister Nam-joo (Bae Du-na) who, interestingly, is an archery medallist.
The film centers on the family, but not in some maudlin Spielberg manner. The Park family bickers and bites and seems to find only one thing to agree on — saving Hyun-seo. Bong makes this conflict personal, so it’s not Government man James Arness trying to stop the giant ants in “Them!”, or scientists attempting to reason with the mutant, but instead a small group of everyday folks who simply want their loved one back unharmed.
The cast is excellent, handling the shifts in tone from crazy comedy to drama to suspenseful action without ever sacrificing the integrity of their characters. Bong himself has shown great skill in all of his films at mixing up genre and tone. This is a real tight-rope walk for a director, and many have failed where Bong succeeds, primarily because there is not one moment in the film where you sense he is confused. “The Host” is a very confident film from beginning to end.
In “Jaws”, there was a subplot Steven Spielberg seemed quite fond of, that of everyday people being duped or lied to by a government meant to protect them. Mayor Vaughn just won’t listen to Chief Brody and Matt Hooper and close the dangerous beaches for the July 4th holiday. “We’re a summer town,” he tells them, “and we need summer dollars.” Spielberg returned to this idea in his following film, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, where the US government creates a fake outbreak in order to evacuate the area of the UFO landing.
I never felt that either of these conflicts had anything to do with Spielberg’s own politics, but were instead the results of post-Watergate distrust of government that was the popular opinion of the time. Were “Jaws” or “Close Encounters” made by Spielberg at another time, I have no doubt they would reflect the popular tastes of that era instead. This was also true of many of the well known monster movies made in Japan. The “Godzilla” series exploited the post-WW2 trauma of the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the catalyst for the monstrous suffering of the Japanese people under the foot of Gojira.
Like the always openly political nature of zombie films post-Romero, this kind of political backdrop is merely part of the tradition. Bong sticks with this tradition in “The Host” by suggesting that the mutated monster is the result of toxic chemicals being dumped into the Han River on the orders of an American military doctor. That the Doc is played by the well-known character actor Scott Wilson (“In Cold Blood”, “CSI”), who has played his share of evil American generals (see “G.I. Jane”) is a casting coup. I don’t think for a minute that Bong is trying to turn his monster picture into a political tract. I think he is merely having fun with the expected genre conventions. Think John Sayles’ baby alligator being flushed down the toilet in “Alligator” (Lewis Teague, 1978) and not “The China Syndrome”.
Before seeing “The Host”, I really thought that the monster movie genre had been milked for all it was worth. But Bong Joon-ho has really done something unique with the genre in much the same way he played with the conventions of the serial killer genre in “Memories of Murder”. Without getting carried away in hyperbole, “The Host” is easily one of the best monster movies ever made.
Joon-ho Bong (director) / Chul-hyun Baek, Joon-ho Bong, Won-jun Ha (screenplay)
CAST: Kang-ho Song …. Park Kang-du
Hie-bong Byeon …. Park Hie-bong
Hae-il Park …. Park Nam-il
Du-na Bae …. Park Nam-ju
Ah-sung Ko …. Park Hyun-seo