Song Kang-ho as Park Gang-Du
Byeon Hie-bong as Park Hie-bong
Park Hae-il as Park Nam-il
Bae Du-na as Park Nam-Joo
Ko Ah-sung as Park Hyun-seo
David Joseph Anselmo as Donald
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
A giant monster movie only by nature, "The Host" is filled with such a tremendous amount of heart and humor that it rises above its genre roots to be a truly unforgettable moviegoing experience.
A carnivorous creature living in South Korea's Han River terrorizes the country, but even moreso when the government proclaims that it's the host of a deadly and contagious virus. Bumbling shopkeeper Gang-du (Sang Kang-ho) and his entire family are torn apart when his daughter Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko) is taken by the creature, forcing them to break out of their quarantine to try to find her while she's still alive.
Every time I've reviewed a Korean movie in the past few years, I've pondered whether there was something in the water that's responsible for so many strange movies coming from the region. Thank the stars for director Bong Joon-ho's mercy in exposing the truth about how the pouring of outdated formaldehyde down the drains has indeed created bizarre evolutionary mutations within the waters of the Han River. While Japan has Godzilla, Gamara, Rodan and literally hundreds of monsters plaguing its shores, the creature terrorizing Korea in Bong Joon-ho's inventive film is suitably bizarre, but "The Host" is far from the typical Saturday afternoon creature feature, being more about the characters and their situation than the monster itself.
After a few short prologues to set-up the creature's existence, we meet Gang-du, a bumbling narcoleptic who works at his family's store, his one time getting something right was providing the necessary chromosomes to create his loving daughter Hyun-seo. Gang-du is serving tourists by the side of the Han River when the creature first surfaces, and rubbernecking curiosity turns to fear and panic as the creature starts tearing into people. After Gang-du tries to valiantly fight the creature off, it drags Hyun-seo into the depths of the river, and Gang-du is reunited with his family to mourn their loss. Meanwhile, a nationwide panic has been created when a person who's been in contact with the creature dies from a virus, and the entire family is put under quarantine. Except that Gang-du has strong suspicions that Hyun-seo is still alive somewhere, and they plot their escape to try and find her.
Filmmaker Bong Joon-ho breaks away from usual monster movie cliches by mixes things up, offering genuine scares and terror one moment with hilarious laughs the next. As you're mourning with the Park family over their loss, a guy in a hazmat suit walks into the area, slips and falls, creating such an unexpected laugh that it creates the necessary break for the next surprise twist. The whole movie offers this type of odd and unexpected humor in the Korean tradition, though some of the biggest laughs are offered at the expense of the authorities and scientists, whose incompetence at dealing with the situation keeps things lively. Even the United States doesn't help matters; it's an American who suggests dumping toxic chemicals into the river, and it's the U.S. authorities who step in and declare the existence of the deadly virus without any proof. (A hilarious cameo by Paul Lazar puts it all into perspective.)
The main reason this movie works so well is the perfect casting of the Park family, especially Song Kang-ho, who is even funnier and more entertaining than he was as a detective in Bong's "Memories of Murder." Once again, he's playing the type of imperfect hero you can't help but love, and the same goes for his eccentric family, including Nam-joo with her archery skills and the derelict uncle Nam-il. They make you feel a vast array of emotions as they become wanted criminals and take on insurmountable odds to try to retrieve Hyun-seo.
While at first, the creature may look kind of silly and dorky, like a cross between a catfish and a puppy dog, any thoughts of it being "cute" will quickly be abolished once it bares its teeth and starts attacking. It's an amazing piece of CGI work, realized in such a way that the creature has as much real weight and depth as any of the creatures in Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings." It might be surprising how such an odd-looking creature can be realized in such a realistic and life-like way that makes it far more threatening than any stop motion or man-in-suit monster could ever be, but it's what makes the terror so effective, especially in the scenes where Hyun-seo is trying to escape from the creature's lair in the sewers. Byeong Woo-Lee's impeccable score adds a lot to bolster the tension in the movie.
While "The Host" looks as good or better than most Hollywood blockbusters, it wisely avoids most of the predictable clichés and plot twists that often ruin the best of them. Since Bong's monster movie is set in the real world where attacking giant monsters has its repercussions, one quickly realizes it's not wise to get too attached to anyone. While some of those decisions might not be so popular, they create a more believable story, even if it's just because the cute kid in it is too busy trying to keep from being eaten by the monster to name it and treat it like a pet--the common practice in Japanese monster movies. Things like that should quickly dispel any easy comparisons, as "The Host" sets the new bar for future movies in the genre.
The Bottom Line:
"The Host" proves director Bong Joon-ho to be another groundbreaking Korean filmmaker who knows how to make a visually stimulating movie filled with excitement and tension, making "The Host" one of those unforgettable film experiences that's so rare. As hard as it is to gauge perfection, being the only dysfunctional family monster movie from Korea or elsewhere, its brilliance as an original piece of filmmaking makes it evidently clear how much genius is at work behind every single frame.