The Host commences in the Han River area of Korea in the year 2000. At a U.S. Base there, a prickly U.S. official orders a Korean underling to dispose of hundreds of bottles of toxic formaldehyde directly into the River. To no avail, the underling protests. Still, the chemicals go directly into the water. Long time aficionados of the "monster movie" format will understand that this is the crucial "bad" authority/government act which then precipitates the creation of a murderous creature. It was atomic testing by America that created Godzilla, for example, in the 1954 Japanese film. And, in the great era of the 1970s, hormone experimentation created giant, feral bunnies in Night of the Lepus (1972), crop dusting chemicals caused spiders to attack William Shatner in Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) and, of course, environmental pollution angered an army of frogs in the Ray Milland-starrer, Frogs (1972). The "bad act" by an authority figure thus gets revived in The Host, and fits in with the tone of the entire film...which doesn't gaze kindly on 21st contemporary American leaders p their foreign policy decisions. But more on that later.
After the preamble in 2002 (and another one set in 2002 in which fisherman find a weird mutant in the river...) we cut to the Han River area in 2006. There, river-side, hapless Gang-Du (Kag-bo Song) runs a small food stand with Grandpa, his dad, and takes care of his cute-as-a-button little daughter, Hyun-Seo. Gang Du sleeps all the time (and apparently farts a lot, according to Grandpa...) and basically hasn't made much of himself or his life. He's saving coins to buy his little Hyun-Seo a new cell phone, instead of the malfunctioning one she already owns. Also in the family are Gang-Du's methodical (slowww.) sister - an archery expert named Nam Joo - and his disapproving but resourceful brother, Nam-Il.
On one normal sunny day, Gang-Du is delivering food to some people camping out by shore, when he notices they are all looking at something "dark" in the water, and also hanging from the underside of a nearby bridge. This scene occurs very early in the film, but it's mesmerizing, a show-stopper. On this normal, sunny day by the water (no perpetual rain fall to hide the effects, as in the 1998 American Godzilla...), a terrifying monster emerges from the River and goes on a vicious, sustained, five-minute attack. The way this set-piece is shot is extraordinary: Gang-Du is still carrying food to deliver when he sees folks running in the distance. There's something big and black behind them...at first just glimpsed...and it keeps getting closer. Then there's no hiding the monster, it's just suddenly there, in full view of the audience, on the rampage.
The monster runs through a trailer full of people (and there's some blood...), tosses people around willy-nilly, and - in a horrifying moment - catches young Hyung-Seo in its whip-like tail and leaps back into the river...gone. What I love about this action scene is that there's no "tease," no hiding the monster for the third act, but furthermore it features tremendous amount of naturalism in the way the beast just shows up and goes on the attack. I also love the way it moves. The monster stumbles on stairs, knocks into things, and generally acts like a confused but hungry animal. There's no attempt to make the beast "as smart as man," like many monster films...it's a MONSTER and it wants to eat. It's gathering food...
After the horrible monster attack at the Han River, the American government gets involved, convinced that those close to the beast have contracted a deadly virus, like SARS, and that they must be quarantined. Gang-Du and his family are duly sent to the hospital, but then - one night...after being poked and prodded by doctors all day, Gang-Du gets a garbled phone call, one that makes him realize his daughter is still alive...in the lair of the monster.
To share any more of The Host's story would ruin the surprise and the movie's fun, but honestly, I know of no movie that I can properly claim is a direct antecedent to this effort. The closest monster film I can think of, is Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), which told the story of a small-time con-man, played by Michael Moriarity, who found the nest of a giant lizard atop the Chrysler Building, and then attempted to exploit that discovery with the police. Now, The Host doesn't involve a con-man, but it utilizes the monster in much the same fashion: to illuminate a human character; to reveal the inner core of a man.
Only in The Host, it's not just Gang-Du that is illuminated, it's his whole crazy family: a bickering, hysterical, loving, very funny bunch. And again, I can think of no other monster movie in which a funeral memorial turns into a grieving free-for-all, with family members kicking and hitting each other, all while screaming hysterically. But that happens here. The Host moves easily from one tone to another, sometimes scary, sometimes grievously sad, sometimes incredibly funny. In that way, it mirrors our real lives.
And that's the reason why the monster, I think, and other characters too, sometimes stumble and fall down in the act of what they're doing. For instance, there's a very funny scene in which a Korean official wearing a bio-hazard suit, struts into a quarantine zone, and slips and lands on his ass. He then stands up and demands, of the surrounded crowd, "Attention!" Like he didn't have the attention of everyone all ready with his pratfall. This is not only an attempt to puncture bureaucracy, it's a nod to real life. People fall and get up and carry on. So do monsters.
Of course, monster movies always run the risk of being unrealistic, yet by setting his monster flick on sunny days, and by having characters say and do sometimes funny, silly things, director Joon Ho-Bing actually makes the scenario that much more realistic. We can recognize the Park family (Gang-Du's family) as one like our own, and you'll be rooting for them to rescue Hyun-Seo. And boy do they give it their all. And, let me just say...not everyone survives. So the comical family bickering gives way to family tragedy at points, and there's one monster-hunting scene by a sewer that will break your heart. Gang-Du makes a terrible, terrible mistake, and it costs him dearly when the monster goes after someone he loves. In that horrifying moment, The Host reaches the full-potential of the sub-genre, the monster movie. You're fully engaged with the characters, and hoping things had turned out differently. I love Godzilla movies and King Kong movies, but in many of them, it's just screaming masses running away, or caught under the monster's feet. You don't sympathize with each victim because you don't get to know them very well. Here, that's simply not the case. The characters feel more real than in most Hollywood movies, even though they're dealing with a "fantasy" situation, a monster.
For instance, there's a wonderfully authentic and human scene wherein Grandpa, Gang-Du and his siblings are sharing a dinner. Gang-Du has - again - dozed off, and Grandpa takes that opportunity to tell the siblings the reasons why they should not be cruel to this boy. Why, in fact, his failings exist, and why they should tolerate him. It's a beautifully played sequence that reveals the unconditional love of a parent, and explains why Grandpa feels so close to this particular man. The scene is honest at the same time it's howlingly funny, but that could be said of much that goes on in The Host.
Like the original Godzilla, there's also clearly a social statement underlying much of The Host, and it reveals, I'm sad to report, how far America has again fallen from the graces of the international community. Remember the Oxygen Destroyer Doomsday weapon in Godzilla? Here, the Americans attempt to deploy a similarly destructive countermeasure against the monster they created, in this case a toxin called "Agent Yellow." Thus, the end of the film depicts the release of this chemical agent, and many characters end up bleeding out of their ears from exposure...
Also, it's impossible not to read what occurs in The Host as a comment on the never-ending Iraq War. The Americans in the film create the problem (polluting the river...), much as we sided with Saddam Hussein and sold him American helicopters and chemical weapons during his war with Iran in the 1980s. (Trivia: did you know that Donald Rumsfeld was Reagan's envoy to Hussein? Or that Hussein received the Key to the City of Detroit for his "friendship" with America?) Then, once the monster is created in the film, America becomes convinced it has infected the community, and goes on a rampage to discover the source of the virus. Without going into further detail, just let me state that the "monster virus" hunt is about the same as WMD hunts in Iraq. Then, finally, America swoops into stop the monster (as we invaded Iraq...) and deploys Agent Yellow...thus causing a new round of terror. Yeah, our image has taken a hit....
I might be accused of reading this subtext into the film by some who would which it weren't so, but I'm surer than I've ever been; this ain't any liberal tendencies on my part: this is an accurate reading of the script's text. It's like a slap in the face to see how badly we are obviously regarded by the maker's of this film. But, we all have to pay the consequences of our actions, and obviously America is going to be paying for the misadventure in Iraq for a long time. And not just in monster movies, either.
There are some really great moments in The Host. One of my favorite images involves the monster disgorging torrents of bones from its maw after digesting some victims. It's a really gross regurgitation...and one that seems to never end. Yick. Another aspect I liked involves how the monster navigates bridges: it flips, tail-to-head, head-to-tail, while traversing their under-structures. I also appreciated the film's two exquisite jump scares, and - of course - the scene wherein Gang-Du attempts to convince the Americans he doesn't have the virus, but everything he says only confirms to the Americans that he's infected. Very funny stuff.
The Host is a particularly human monster movie, and if the film's final scene, set back in that tiny food stand, doesn't make you a little misty, then you might be the one who's a monster.