|The Host (2007)
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Hie-bong Byeon, Ah-sung Ko, Hae-il Park, Du-na Bae
Director: Joon-ho Bong
It’s a rare feat to produce a film that successfully mashes several different genres into one – let alone be able to satisfy both rabid fanboys and the hypercritical art-house crowd – but Joon-ho Bong’s “The Host” does just that. A throwback to the classic monster movies of yesteryear, the film takes a very real event and transforms it into a brilliant what-if tale about a family that is torn apart by a horrific monster, all while stirring in some snarky political commentary along the way.
The film opens in the year 2000 at a U.S. military facility in Seoul, South Korea. When an American scientist happens upon some bad Formaldehyde, he orders his Korean assistant to dispose of the hundreds of bottles. Despite his reservations about dumping the hazardous chemical into the sewage system (which just so happens to flow directly into the Han River), the assistant complies. Fast-forward five years later and the audience is introduced to Gang-Du (Kang-ho Song), a dim-witted single father working at his old man’s (Hie-bong Byeon) food stand, when he is suddenly attracted to a crowd throwing beer cans and snack food at a mysterious shadow swimming underneath the Han River.
The object is actually an enormous monster (a mutant amphibian of sorts and the supposed result of the dangerous chemicals) that suddenly jumps onto the bank and begins to attack the onlookers. As Gang-Du is fleeing with the rest of the crowd, his 13-year-old daughter, Hyun-Seo (Ah-sung Ko), is snatched up by the monster and taken away. Fearing the worst, Gang-Du’s hope is revived when he receives a broken phone call from his daughter claiming that she’s still alive and trapped in the city’s sewer system. With the help of his father and two siblings – Nam-il (Hae-il Park), a university-educated bum, and Nam-Joo (Du-na Bae), an Olympic archer – Gang-Du sets off on a mission to save his daughter from the lair of the slimy beast.
“The Host” may be a horror-thriller at heart, but it never takes itself too seriously. As is common in most South Korean cinema, the film isn’t afraid to expose the comical side of the situation, and it only works to make the final product an even more enjoyable experience. In fact, many comparisons to “Little Miss Sunshine” have been drawn in recent months (that is, if little Olive were kidnapped by a mutant tadpole), and they’re not to be completely overlooked. Just as the broken down VW bus served as the catalyst of creating a strong bond among the eccentric family, so does the monster for the family of unlikely heroes. It’s also one of the best looking creatures I’ve ever seen. From its fascinatingly unique appearance to its acrobatic movements, the mutant amphibian is like a cross between Jaws and the Alien, with bits of T-Rex, squid and catfish thrown in for good measure.
It’s a shame that Hollywood will probably only ruin it with a remake, since the Korean version does such a splendid job with avoiding all the usual trappings of an American action film. Sure, the film has a few problems of its own – namely a subplot involving an ill-conceived theory by the U.S. about a possible virus – but director Joon-ho is quick to get back to the meat and bones of the story (quite literally, in a scene showing the monster vomiting up the hundreds of human bones that he has consumed since surfacing) and never lets his guard down again for the remainder of the film. “The Host” is not only one of the best movies that I’ve seen all year, it’s also the greatest monster movie ever made, surpassing even “Godzilla,” the undisputed champion of the genre for over fifty years. Yeah, it’s that good.
The single-disc release of “The Host” is pretty standard fare – director commentary (thankfully in English), deleted scenes, etc. – but Magnolia is also releasing a two-disc special edition the very same day. The bonus disc includes all the good stuff that diehard fans will want to have, including a behind-the-scenes look at creating the monster, but you’ll probably be required to understand Korean (or at least read subtitles) to make spending the extra cash worthwhile.