The Host

The least interesting part of a monster movie always tends to be the monster. It’s an ironic truth, but it’s valid nonetheless. The granddaddy of the entire genre – Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien – hid the monster in the shadows and allowed the audience (and the characters) only fleeting glimpses until the film’s climax. Joon-ho Bong’s The Host follows a similar logic (although the entire monster is shown very early on) by avoiding the creature as much as possible, instead focusing on the difficulties of a single victim’s family who are trying to save her.

The opening sequences are masterful at setting up the monster’s birth and the carnage of its first attack. The film smartly chooses not to take a slow-burn reveal of the monster and presents the creature in its CGI entirety within the film’s first twenty minutes. Presumably a mutated fish from the dumping of formaldehyde into the Han River, the creature is a acrobatic and vicious, and the first attack sequence is a pinnacle for the genre as the dim-witted protagonist Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) watches in shock as the monster barrels towards him, swallowing bystanders whole and swatting others into the river with his tail. Gang-du attempts to save his daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seong) from the chaos, but she is snatched by the creature and taken into the water below.

The government clumsily tries to deal with the aftermath (especially evident in a scene when a hazmat-clad official avoids attempting to explain what’s going on and directs victims to watch the nightly news instead) and then the real monsters of the film arrive in the form of an unsympathetic bureaucracy and the intervention of the American military to clean up the mess with a biological chemical known as “Agent Yellow.”

The emotional core of the movie is Gang-du’s relentless search for his daughter along with his family – father Hee-Bong (Byeon Hee-Bong), sister Nam-joo (Bae Doona), and his brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il). Instead of the monster chasing them, the government does. Gang-du’s face was splashed with some of the monster’s blood in the initial attack and the authorities believe that the monster is the host of some rare, and devastating, virus that Gang-du may be infected with. The family spends more time hiding and fleeing from normal human beings rather than the grotesque and malicious monster.

The film does have some pacing issues and plot devices that are a little too convenient. While right on the creature’s track, both Nam-il and Nam-joo are briefly incapacitated to allow an interlude of scenes that focus on Gang-du. And then once his scenes are finished they both miraculously wake up from unconsciousness, ready to fight again. I found it slightly irritating, especially when the film seems to encourage you to think that both characters have been killed. There is also a plot device at the end – which I will dub “hobo ex machina” – that takes away from the film’s climax.

While watching the film this question occurred to me: Is the monster inherently evil, or just another victim of forces beyond its control? The Host seems to tease us with this proposition without overplaying its hand. It’s up to us to decide after the fact, but one of the quotes I like the most, and perhaps the most telling, comes from Gang-du’s father (and the victim Hyun-seo’s Grandfather) Hee-Bong. After the attack on his granddaughter and the slaughter of bystanders by the monster on the riverside he says:

“Old people have always said: That an animal which kills a human being should be torn limb from limb. That it’s a humans duty to do so.”

It’s not exactly poetic, but it’s effective. Whether the monster was a victim or not, perhaps it doesn’t matter. For what it has done, it must die.

Grade: B

Sidenote: This is the third Joon-ho Bong film that I have seen after Mother and Memories of Murder. This is one director who deserves to be included in my list of directors who have never made a bad film.

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