- Manic panic: Song Gang-ho and Ah-sung Ko run for their lives.
It seems ages since there's been a decent old-fashioned monster film. Last year, there was the overlooked Slither, but James Gunn's slugs-from-outer-space flick, while faithful to the genre, had its tongue firmly in cheek. Gags are swell, as are giant slimy creatures, but a great monster film also has serious undertones -- something to give the viewer pause when the chuckles and shrieks die down.
You'll laugh out loud during The Host, which in its first reel introduces us to a comically disordered Korean family, a humongous man-eating amphibian and several inspired humorous bits. But Joon ho-Bong's smartly made film is no ironic snarkfest: Its antecedents -- Godzilla, eco-horror cautionary tales and conspiracy thrillers -- are far more sobering.
The story begins in 2000 at a U.S. military base in Seoul, South Korea, where a dismissive army officer orders an aide to pour large quantities of formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals down the sink. "But this drains to the Han River ...," protests the Korean assistant. So what, shrugs the American -- it's a huge river.
This opening scene -- a canny mix of humor, critique and anticipated horror -- is the first of The Host's many digs at the American military's overweening presence in South Korea. (In fact, this scene is rooted in an actual 2000 toxic-chemical dump into the Han River by the U.S. military.)
The film then jumps to the present, when, on an otherwise peaceful afternoon, the Han disgorges a spectacularly mutated amphibious creature that runs amok on the riverbank, snatching up picnickers. Among its victims: 13-year-old Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko). Soon, her dysfunctional but anguished family, led by her too-accommodating grandfather (Byun Hee-bong), are hustled off by men in bio-hazard suits to be quarantined: The monster may also be spreading a virus, or so the men in uniform say. Such is our contemporary culture of state-ordered fear in the face of such paper tigers as SARS or terrorism.
The real source of the horror goes unnoticed by the authorities. As in the classic mid-century films it draws from, The Host's monster is a direct result of man's carelessness. And as in the conspiracy-minded eco-freak-out stories of the 1970s, the existing power structures can't be relied on to stop the menace; they're too busy exploiting the situation for their own ends. Only an everyman warrior with a pure heart fired by rage can summon the strength and smarts to defeat the creature -- and the machine that created it.
Thus our unlikely hero is Gang-du (Song Gang-ho), Hyun-seo's developmentally challenged dad (another victim of a toxic environment?), who stops at nothing after learning that his plucky daughter is still alive and trapped in the monster's lair. The fractured little family rallies to save Hyun-seo -- though tellingly, the state-imposed order poses greater risks to their safety and success than does the beast on the loose.
Bong's film doesn't lack for action sequences, yet it's unafraid of quiet time, and The Host has moments that feel almost lyrical, like a reflective arthouse feature. And they're remarkably effective, whether it's a vignette of a sad little dinner shared by a homeless family, or the rain-soaked streets of a deserted major city, which prove as creepy as our frantic glimpses of the mutant creature.
While we're confident throughout that the monster will be vanquished -- it's surely no coincidence that Hyun-seo's older sister is an archery champion -- Bong refuses to compromise the film's darker undertones. While he lures us in with laughs and a comfortably familiar David vs. Goliath monster match, The Host proffers an ending that is both unsettled and unsettling -- just like life today. In Korean, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., March 23. Loews