What with all the torture-porn taking over American cineplexes (Saw, Hostel, Wolf Creek, Turistas, The Passion of the Christ), I’d almost forgotten what it’s like to have fun while watching a horror movie. Thankfully, the South Korean movie industry is either so far behind the trend or so far ahead of the curve that it’s managed to deliver The Host, a funny, scary, emotional, thrilling and occasionally bloody monster movie. You heard me right: This is a good, old-fashioned, B-grade monster movie--the kind with an honest-to-god monster in it, as opposed to a dirty psycho with a pair of wirecutters.
When it was released in Asia last year, The Host became a blockbusting phenomenon, pulling in something like $12 million in Korea alone (a major chunk of change for the small country). Now, thanks to the kind folks at Magnolia Pictures, The Host is washing up on American shores in a respectfully subtitled version that keeps all the original’s crazy plot convolutions intact.
The Host introduces us to the mostly screwed-up Park family. Thirteen-year-old Hyun-Seo (Ah-sung Ko) is a cute li’l, miniskirted schoolgirl whose lazy, good-for-nothing dad, Gang-Du (Kang-ho Song), works at a riverside snackbar owned by Hyun-Seo’s sad-sack grandfather. Hyun-Seo’s uncle is a perpetually jobless college grad, and her aunt is an Olympic archer who repeatedly cracks under pressure (always a bronze medalist, never a bride).
About 10 minutes into the film, shortly after delivering the film’s main moral of “never dump toxic chemicals into your city’s main waterway,” director Joon-ho Bong (Memories of Murder) cheerfully violates the main rule of monster movies by refusing to keep his creature hidden in the shadows until the final reel.
Moments after she drops by her family’s tiny snack shack on her way home from school, little Hyun-Seo is nabbed by a Winnebago-sized water monster that freight-trains its way out of Seoul’s nearby Han river. This mutated offspring of a giant tadpole and the creature from Alien is a human-munching machine, and it zips through the riverside park snatching up people like popcorn. The Parks are devastated by the loss of Hyun-Seo, possibly because she’s the only non-screw-up in the family. Before the Parks can properly express their grief, though, the military pounces on the city, cordoning off the river, sealing citizens in makeshift shelters and spreading disinformation about a deadly plague.
While under the watchful eye of the South Korean Army, Gang-Du gets a cell phone call from--surprise, surprise--his daughter! Seems that our slimy monster keeps an alligator-like larder and is stuffing the sewers of Seoul with tasty wounded tidbits. Poor Hyun-Seo is stuck in some concrete hole in the ground and her ragtag relatives are her only hope. Bonding together like the dysfunctional family they were born to be, the Parks brave the military cordon, bust out onto the chaotic streets of Seoul and go in search of their youngest member. Imagine Little Miss Sunshine crossed with Godzilla and you’ll have some idea what this ride is gonna be like.
The script borrows a good deal of its inspiration from the toxic-shock eco-horror movies of the late-’70s and early-’80s (Frogs, Food of the Gods, Jaws, Prophecy). John Sayles and Joe Dante’s satirical, self-referential 1978 cult film Piranha probably provides the biggest influence. Aside from the bloody monster action, the winking humor and the tearful family drama, The Host finds time to shoehorn in a few timely metaphors about government control and environmental pollution. It’s horrifying and thought-provoking!
Given that The Host is a movie about a gigantic mutated sewer monster, there aren’t going to be too many people heading into the theater expecting the condensed works of Shakespeare. That’s probably a good thing. The acting (mostly by the few American castmembers) is sometimes sketchy, the humor occasionally dabbles in slapstick, and the tone sometimes switches gears way too abruptly. Still, it all seems vaguely appropriate in a movie about a humongous man-eating pollywog. Seriously, who are you to resist?