Korean director Bong Joon-ho is on the minds of many filmgoers this summer thanks to the Stateside release of the phenomenally strange dystopian train-enthusiast blockbuster Snowpiercer, a film that had already made the rounds across the globe last year. Snowpiercer, for all of its dour environmental commentary and gritty revolutionary storylines, managed to set itself apart not only due to its novel setting, but for its predilection for cutting through the drama with a healthy dollop of slapstick comedy in the middle of the chaos. It is a novel approach, and one that can feel a bit jarring for a western audience. It is not, however, a new approach for the director. Back in 2006, he released the monster movie pastiche The Host, which proved to be a massive hit in his native South Korea. To this day, The Host is the highest grossing film in the history of the Korean film market.
The story opens in a dimly lit dingy laboratory. An American doctor (Scott Wilson, best known to current audiences as Herschel on The Walking Dead) commands his lab assistant to dispose of some 200 dusty bottles of formaldehyde by dumping them into a sink that eventually drains into the nearby Han River. After an aside of some fishermen finding a deformed organism swimming in the river, the narrative shifts to present day Seoul, where it settles in to follow the family of Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho, who would go on to star in Snowpiercer). Gang-du, who is not the smartest of people, works at a food stand with his father (Byun Hee-bong). During a visit from his daughter Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung), the mutated creature explodes from the river and wreaks havoc across the parking lot on the river’s bank. During the attack, Hyun-seo is claimed by the monster and assumed dead, and Gang-du and his family are quarantined by the military as it becomes clear that the monster is harboring some sort of virus (hence the name of the film). That night, Gang-du receives a phone call from his presumed dead daughter, and the race is on to find her in the sewers below the city before the monster realizes she is still alive.
Much like his Snowpiercer character, Song Kang-ho’s protagonist is not the most inspiring visage. A clumsy and dim-witted man, Gang-du remains fully committed to his family, even when he does not get the same in return. He does make for a wonderful cipher for Bong Joon-ho’s wild sense of humor. Pratfalls abound, and there are some wickedly sharp stabs at some of the more egregious disaster and monster movie cliches. This is especially the case once the government gets involved, preaching calm from beneath hazmat suits and relying on the news to provide exposition only to find out that no one is broadcasting the news at that time. It is during these moments that The Host sets itself apart, providing a breath of fresh air that manages to level off the tension while providing a bit of sly commentary regarding the pitfalls to which films like this usually find themselves falling prey. The director also wears his influences on his sleeve; the conservationist message and the folly of pollution at the fore of the plot (thin as it may be) is another twist on the classic Godzilla setup and (consistent with Snowpiercer) there is quite a lot of Terry Gilliam in the more absurdist proceedings, especially during a scene where the family escapes from a hospital to a piece of the score that feels straight out of Time Bandits or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
The monster at the center of it all feels right at home among the madness. It does succeed in believably terrifying the populace, but there is definitely more than a little bit of the pathetic that has gone into its design. Born of chemical mutation, it is a multi-layered fish-beast with a prehensile tail and shriveled vestigial arms and legs hanging off its body. This is not some sleek, streamlined killing machine, but instead a rumbling, awkward killing machine, full of personality imbued by talented visual effects artists working on quite a small budget (approximately $12 million). The CG may not be on the same level as that of this year’s Godzilla reboot, and there may be a few moments with some shaky compositing, but keeping in mind the budget, it is perfectly acceptable to show a few warts.
Pointedly, The Host is not all comedy all the time. The second and third acts raise the stakes, and the humor appropriately steps to the side to allow for the story to run its course. As silly as Gang-du may be, his daughter is in peril, and it would be inappropriate to the point of ruining the mood of the film. When it comes down to it, the film turns into a tidy little thriller, transitioning effortlessly from the search to an all-out dash to save Hyun-seo. Bong does manage to traverse this tonal tightrope between the serious and the absurd, and the climax of the film crackles with energy during the final confrontation between man and monster. The experience of watching this film is a roller coaster of themes and emotions, and the way all of it melds together into a cohesive whole is impressive. The work of Song Kang-ho and crew (especially the brave young Go Ah-sung, who provides the emotional through-line upon which the rest of the film rests) is roundly excellent.
It is fascinating that a film like The Host would be the highest grossing film in a country. Despite its roots in the well-known (but not particularly mainstream) genre of monster movies, it is by no means the standard fare. Bong Joon-ho has certainly established himself as a director with no qualms about spicing up even the most dour moments with physical comedy and satire. If Snowpiercer and this film are any indication, Bong Joon-ho is a director who will continue to surprise and delight for years to come.