Yeah, it’s pretty damn good. (We’re on our last festival legs here â€” our next review may not even be in complete sentences: Movie good! Acting so-so. Hey look, mise en scÃ¨ne.) But we’re a bit concerned that Bong Joon-ho‘s "The Host" has been burdened with enough breathless praise off the festival circuit that it’s going to disappoint some: it is first and foremost a monster movie, after all, and an enthusiastically shabby one that’s not pushy with its startlingly dark political and social subtext. If "Gojira" offered a nation’s trauma and terror of nuclear testing made (reptilian) flesh, "The Host" suggests a present in which people are the helpless victims of various inept, unreasonable, impersonal and uncaring systems â€” the monster, frightening as it is, has nothing on the military doctors, who might accidentally lobotomize you while looking for a virus they’ve already acknowledged amongst themselves probably doesn’t exist.
The monster is a mutated form of Han River life that springs up after someone at the US military base has dozens of jars of formaldehyde poured down the drain (and thus into the water supply) because they’re…dusty. Several years later, it’s uncoiling from the supports of a bridge and galloping along the shoreline devouring people in a sequence both brutal and disturbingly funny. A kind of lurching cross between a bus-sized tadpole, a T-Rex and the creatures in "Alien," the monster is a great creation, a CG character that feels decidedly substantial and that’s both grotesque and, like the rest of the film, sometimes goofy.
Our unheroic hero is Park Kang-du ("Memories of Murder"‘s Song Kang-du), a lazy lifelong fuck-up working at his father’s food stand by the water and making well-meaning but incompetent gestures toward being a father to his self-possessed tween-aged daughter Hyun-seo. Hyun-seo is plucked up by the monster in front of his eyes; luckily (perhaps), she survives being regurgitated and dumped in a pit for later consumption, and manages to make a cell phone call to her father. Unluckily, the entire ragtag Park family (Kang-du, his father, his professional archer sister and his unemployed, alcoholic brother) has been quarantined by the government, which fears that the monster is carrying a virus that may have infected everyone who’s come in contact with it. No one believes Kang-du; the Parks must escape and rescue Hyun-seo themselves.
As in his previous film "Memories of Murder," Bong shifts fluidly between genres: "The Host" is at once a drama, a horror flick, a comedy, a social satire and a saga of wacky family bonding. The underlying tone, however, is astonishingly disheartened â€” there’s little uplift to the end, and plenty of scenes play as comedy so black we did a double-take. If the Parks prevail, it’s at great personal cost, and the ending is more a wistful reminder of the kindness of some than a scene of hope. There’s a reoccurring mention of seori, of children stealing food from farms either out of mischievous fun or genuine hunger. As one scrounging teenager tells his younger brother, it’s about the right of the hungry to have food, and there’s something briefly reassuring about the idea, that if you need something to survive, society will bend the rules to allow you to have it â€” other people will help you in your time of need. Of course, then the monster swoops down and swallows him whole.
No more festival screenings â€” opens in theaters January 29.