South Korea, 2006
Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 10 October 2006
Source Magnolia Pictures 35MM Theatrical Print
Features: The 44th New York Film Festival
The Host is inventive, sharp , breathlessly paced, political, and really, really fun. Pardon the lack of a clever adjective, but before anything else, The Host surpasses expectation, and is more exuberant and pleasurable than any Hollywood blockbuster of late. The official midnight screening at the New York Film Festival this year, The Host already has an undercurrent of buzz built up after its premiere at Cannes. And deservedly so, as the audience reaction was an enormously enjoyable part of the viewing experience, perfectly tuned in to the film’s tongue-in-cheek attitude.
Essentially, The Host is a great monster movie, with a political slant worthy of the best horror analysis involving Godzilla and the atom bomb or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Vietnam War. Targeting relations between the United States and Korea, The Host opens at a U.S. military lab, as an American official orders a Korean subordinate to dispose of dusty bottles of formaldehyde by dumping them down the drain into the Han River. After all, it is a wide river, according to the U.S. official, and can handle the potent contents of a few hundred bottles. Inevitably, this is a prelude to disaster – six years pass, and a horrifically ugly creature, described in the program notes quite accurately as a malevolent guppy (courtesy of Peter Jackson’s creature shop, Weta), unfurls itself under a bridge before going on a rampage, ingesting and crushing any human in its way.
The Park Family runs a food stand on the Han River, and is immediately affected by the mutant’s rampage. Delightfully, the Parks are rather like the Bluth family from Arrested Development both in their dysfunctionality and incredible comedic timing. There is the elderly Father who owns the food stand and attempts to manage the bickering in his brood; oldest son Nam-il, a sarcastic, out of work academic; sister Nam-ju, dawdling but with one hell of an aim in archery; and youngest son Kang-du, the slow-minded, seemingly stoned father of granddaughter Hyun-seo. When Kang-du accidentally grabs the hand of another girl while escaping the mutant, Hyun-seo is captured and dragged off to the horror of the entire family. The government shows up and quarantines Kang-du, declaring a virus is spreading among those who came in direct contact with the creature. While confined, Kang-du receives a brief call on his cell phone from Hyun-seo, who is still alive and somewhere in the sewers, news that puts the Park family into action against the mutant and the government that refuses to listen to their plight.
Within its 1950’s monster movie plot, The Host manages to insert fresh doses of twisted humor; before learning that Hyun-seo is in fact still alive, the Park family breaks down in front of her missing persons photo at the quarantine center. The way they break down is incredibly hysterical, moaning and gnashing teeth in an exaggerated form that leaves them toppling over one another and simultaneously fighting and crying. Despite the fighting, the family pulls together for Hyun-seo, tackling a ridiculous amount of obstacles in their search to save her. The Host juggles emotion with a spare hand left for pointed digs at the Bush administration, U.S. presence on Korean soil, the absurdity of “misinformation,” and the mounting fragility of the environment, but also universalizes the increasing amount of apathy that seems to have sprung up in society. Sure, the government fictionalizes and manipulates, but the ordinary citizen doesn’t appear to give a damn either; the biggest frustration of Kang-du’s search is the fact that no one will listen to him, whether they are in a position of power or not.
Since The Host does feature a foul mutant, it should be mentioned, but only in that it works tremendously well; one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film is its knowledge of how to simultaneously scare its audience while keeping their eyes wide open so they won’t miss the joke in the next shot. There is probably one single gross moment, but the mutant is creepy throughout, partially thanks to its captive, Hyun-seo. The young actress portraying Hyun-seo, Ah-sung Ko, easily holds audience interest in a manner that surpasses simply being the cute kid in trouble; plucky and lovable, she is the obvious heart of the Park family.
Joon-ho Bong’s film is so satisfying, and it’s marvelous to have a cinematic joy ride at the festival. The Host is terrific; the analogies are lucid but not overwrought, it’s reliably nail-biting, and at its core is a laughable, but sincere and loving family. I loved the Parks—the mixture of gentle dysfunction and loyalty without a hint of irony made this the first horror/monster film in recent memory where I’ve not simply experienced brief and forgettable chills, but actually cared.