How do you make a fresh monster movie when the computer graphics era has seen so many of them, and so many of them have been godawful? The cheerfully quirky south Korean film The Host , by Bong Joon-ho, provides a convincing answer. It knows and exploits genre stereotypes, yet subverts our expectations with clashing styles. If you can imagine a combination of Little Miss Sunshine and Jaws , you’re well on your way to getting the idea.
We get to see the creature from the beginning. At first, it looks like a wet gray pendulous chrysalis the size of a Volkswagen mini-bus, hanging underneath a bridge over the Han river. When it plops into the water, a gathering crowd on the shore helpfully tries to feed it whatever garbage is at hand. The monster, which we now see resembles an amphibious, tentacled, multi-legged tyrranosaur, runs amok in the bright daylight, causing a proper panic.
What are the rules? Is it vicious, or just scared? Is it hungry, and if so, does it eat people? It captures a little girl. Is she alive or dead? The film keeps us guessing about the monster – evil, or just misunderstood — pulling the rug out from under us in a couple of splendid surprises. The monster hasn’t read the screenplay, and follows its own agenda, not the needs of the plot.
The captured girl’s dysfunctional family, the Parks, is a collection of clichés. The grandfather, Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong), who runs a tiny convenience kiosk on the river bank, is the crusty patriarch. He has three adult children. One is an unemployed drunk; one is a bum, the irresponsible father of Hyun-Seo, the captured girl; and one is a competitive archer, held back from a gold medal because she can’t seem to release the arrow in time. Three guesses whether that will figure in the climax.
The movie takes a good half hour for its sense of humor to gel. The turning point is a strange scene where the Parks, overcome with grief, wail so extravagantly they knock each other down and squirm and squall on the floor like fighting children. As they get it together and progress on their quest to find Hyun-Seo, alive or dead, they become more specific, their characters deepen, and the comedy starts to work. In fact, at the half way point, we realize that no one is really safe; and at that point, the film even becomes moving.
The Host has a surprising awareness of Korean environmental and social issues. And many throwaway gags start to build up to a very real criticism of the U.S. military. One of the great possibilities of satire is that you can tell off your friend without damaging the relationship. Maybe the best way to do that is to co-opt an American genre, and add an indelible, individual stamp.
Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.