“The Host” is a monster movie, but there’s a clear indication early on that it’s going to be more than that: We get a complete view of the monster within the first 15 minutes as it gallops along a river front, eating people.
If you know anything about monster movies, you know the good ones generally avoid showing the creature in full view until later in the film. It’s much scarier to give hints and glimpses at first, and save the big reveal for closer to the end. “Jaws” is one of the prime examples of doing this effectively; compare it with the later, inept chapters in the “Friday the 13th” series, where Jason is practically the main character and thus loses most of his scariness.
“The Host” is not inept, though, and its seemingly premature reveal of the monster is intentional. It signals our subconscious to be on the lookout for other elements. As terrifying as the creature is at first, we won’t be quite as alarmed by it later on, and that means the movie must have other surprises in store for us.
And my, does it! I hesitate to use the word “rollicking” for any reason, especially in the context of a horror film, but that’s what “The Host” is: rollicking, thrilling, scary, funny, and satirical. It juggles multiple characters in an ensemble cast and expertly shifts gears to take us from laughing to cringing and back again, always at just the right time.
At the center is the Park family, owners of a snack shop on the river front, a popular spot for sunbathers and picnickers. The patriarch, Hi-bong (Hie-bong Byeon), does most of the work while his lazy grown-up son Gang-du (Kang-ho Song) naps and watches TV. Gang-du’s brother Nam-il (Hae-il Park) is a drunk, and their sister, Nam-joo (Du-na Bae) is a champion archer who suffers from chronic hesitance. Think “The Royal Tenenbaums” mixed with “Arrested Development” for the family dynamics.
The apple of everyone’s eye is Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko), Gang-du’s sweet young teenage daughter. It is she who winds up swept away by the monster during its attack on the river front park, gone and presumed dead.
Ah yes, the monster. Seems the U.S. army leaked some toxic chemicals into the Han River a few years back, and now a gigantic amphibious fish-like beast with legs and a prehensile tail lives beneath the surface. Something makes it come ashore and wreak havoc on the city in a sequence that rivals Spielberg’s best terror scenes (in “Jurassic Park” and “War of the Worlds,” particularly) for style, audacity, and sheer thrills.
Popular Korean director Joon-ho Bong is responsible for this confectionery, with a jam-packed screenplay he wrote with Chul-hyun Baek and Jun-won Ha. He works multiple angles, too, first with the dysfunctional Park family called upon to join forces, quit hating each other, and rescue Hyun-seo from the monster; and second with Hyun-seo and a little boy she finds as they attempt to escape the monster’s lair.
Then there’s a third layer: sharp political satire. Bong cleverly mocks the botched, panicky response that governments often give to natural disasters, and the cover-ups that follow. The government insists the monster is spreading a virus and quarantines everyone who had contact with it, resulting in some amusing SARS-like paranoia and mask-wearing. Then, to kill the creature, the military decides on a tactic that will kill a lot of people, too — a cure that’s worse than the disease.
Rather brilliantly, Bong combines all of these elements in a way that allows the viewer to enjoy the movie on several levels. The political satire is genial enough to go down smoothly regardless of one’s affiliation, or it can be ignored altogether in favor of the well-staged scary-movie scenes of panic and terror, which are never gruesome or awful, but just fun. In fact, that’s the movie all over: just plain fun.
A- (1 hr., 59 min.; Korean with subtitles; )