Korea has never had much luck with giant monster movies. First there was Yongary, the bargain-basement Godzilla knock-off from the deep. Then came Wangmagwi, the monster so mysterious that only a handful of Korean movie buffs have laid eyes upon him. Then the awful A*P*E, a cousin to Kong only in that a gorilla suit was employed during filming. Pulgasari was next, the misbegotten minotaur created at the whim of Kim Jong-Il (no kidding!) and finally things came full circle with Yonggary (aka Reptilian), a late-nineties remake of Yongary that managed to be even less pleasing than the original.
Despite this tortured history, I was still looking forward to seeing Korea’s latest kaiju offering: The Host. The buzz around it was exceptional and the trailer was particularly alluring — it conveyed a sense of mystery and realism that hasn’t been seen in a giant monster flick that hasn’t been seen since the ’90s Gamera flicks at least. (Plus it didn’t actually reveal the monster to the audience.) Had I been told I could only see one movie at Fantastic Fest, The Host would have been my choice.
I’ll admit that some skepticism crept in during the opening scenes. A lab worker is coerced into dumping gallons of expired formaldehyde into the Han river, presumably triggering a mutation that will later bring forth our giant monster. This is old, familiar territory (and apparently based on real-life events), but soon it becomes apparent that director Joon-ho Bong is merely laying the foundation for a story that is startlingly dissimilar from the giant monster movies we’ve seen to date.
Having led viewers down the garden path a bit with a comical scene between two fishermen, The Host shifts into a domestic scene at a public park where Park Kang-du (Song Kang-ho) absentmindedly tends his father’s food stand while awaiting his own daughter’s return from school. Kang-du’s blonde dye job and shiftlessness at work make him seem more like a bumbling older brother than a father figure (just one of the many complexities in the family that is the film’s heart) but when the movie’s resident leviathan erupts from the river to munch on the picnickers, Kang-du leaps into action to save his little girl. In his panic, however, he grabs the wrong seventh grader. His own child, Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko), is nabbed by the creature.
The film follows the dysfunctional Park family as they grieve for Hyun-seo (in a scene played for laughs!) before receiving a call from the girl’s cell phone –- she’s still alive and quaking in the monster’s sewer-tunnel lair. The authorities, rather than being of any help, actively hinder the family’s quest to rescue Hyun-Seo — after all, a quick check of cell phone records and the movie would take a decidedly easier path, so we can’t have that. There is also the small matter of a mysterious plague apparently communicated between the monster and those fortunate enough to survive contact with it (hence the film’s title). The Parks band together to escape the quarantine, sneak back into monster territory, and find their youngest member.
It’s rare that a giant monster flick gets compliments for its wit but that is by far The Host‘s most distinguishing characteristic. The Host features the usual slapstick and terrified-googly-eyes jokes that usually constitute the extent of kaiju jocularity, sure. Accompanying those things, however, is a formidable arsenal of satire that spares no one as it lampoons the popular fears spawned by the SARS crisis, the heavy hand of the United States in world politics, and humanity’s willful ignorance of the environmental consequences of its modern existence. Far from the ramming his message down the collective throat of the audience, Bong inter-cuts vignettes of razor-sharp wit with terrifying monster encounters for a one-two emotional punch. (Watch particularly as a crowd of commuters uneasily distance themselves from a fellow passenger while waiting for the bus.) Balancing this thrill ride is the pleasure of watching the Parks figure themselves out as a family unit and as individuals. The ending is the only disappointment as the family’s personality traits (one is an Olympic-level archer, another a former student dissident) dovetail a little too neatly into the plot and a few of the computer effects fail to live up to the rest of the picture, but by and large The Host is a highly impressive kaiju film.
And what of the monster him/her/itself? I have yet to see the creature named in the press and “The Host” just sounds dumb, so I’m going to go with “Gwoemul” (the native language title of the film) for now. Despite Gwoemul’s reduced stature (at least in kaiju terms – the creature is still about the size of an elephant), it is one of the more frightening beasties to crawl onto the screen in some time. It’s been a while since I’ve jumped in my seat at a movie, and certain scenes — particularly the ones in which Hun-seo and a younger boy face off with the creature in its hidey-hole — reacquainted me with that sensation nicely.
Did I say crawl? Gwoemul rarely crawls, preferring instead to spring forth from the river, loping easily across the open grass in the park as it snatches victims with its prehensile tail. When in a more urban environment Gwoemul takes to the air, swinging between bridge beams more naturally than Spidey himself. We are led to believe it is a mutated tadpole of some sort, though a cross between a gecko lizard and the Graboids from the Tremors films is closer to the mark. This puts The Host more into the realm of films like the aforementioned Tremors and Aliens rather than Godzilla, but the flick’s exceptional entertainment value and hard-core fright tactics will more than offset the letdown for kaiju purists.
I won’t be surprised if Korea soon celebrates Joon-ho Bong as a national treasure. Not only is he a gifted filmmaker but he has restored the nation’s honor by creating the most acerbic satire in kaiju history. After all, if you don’t have a decent monster to your name you’re really nobody on the Asian international scene. The Host puts Thailand and Garuda back at the bottom of the heap – and nobody wants to be at the bottom of a heap of giant monsters.