Review: “The Host” (2006), dir. Joon-ho Bong
The Host is a coming-of-age story focusing on the Parks – a dysfunctional Korean family – and the gigantic mutant monster that arrives to disrupt their lives. It’s not as silly as it sounds. While far from perfect, the meat of the movie is tightly wound and dotted with genuinely funny bits of absurd comedy. If you can get past the “why didn’t they just… (fill in the more sensible solution)?” factor regarding the military and the monster, you’ll be able to enjoy watching the craziness of the Park family.
The story begins with a little background: we see the likely origin of the mutant monster, as a heartless scientist has gallons of formaldehyde poured down the drain and into the Han River. We cut to a couple of years later, when two fishermen spot a hand-size fish with multiple tails.
We then jump ahead again to the Parks’ snack shop next to the Han River. Grandpa Hie-bong Park operates a snack shop with his hapless son Gang-du, an infantile adult who can’t stop falling asleep on the job. Hang-du has a 12-year-old daughter, Hyun-seo, who is far more intelligent and sensible than her father. Very quickly things are thrown into chaos, when a group of men spot an enormous squid-like creature hanging from under a bridge. Soon enough the monster is on land and savagely attacking the townspeople, grabbing the young Hyun-seo in its tail as it departs back into the water. I particularly like the way the monster is introduced onto land. While there is plenty of opportunity for the classic “bursting out of the water at the camera”, instead the on-lookers lose site of the creature, only to have Gang-du spot it quietly trotting down the boardwalk towards them from their right. There is something very sinister about an animal of that size with the ability to sneak up and attack from the flank.
The rest of the film is composed of three plot-lines. The first is the Park family’s attempts to escape quarantine and re-capture (the military decides that anyone exposed to the monster might have a deadly virus, hence the name ‘The Host’); the second is the quest to find Hyun-seo, who is still alive and manages to make one brief cell-phone call from the monster’s lair. This second plot is far more interesting than the first. The quarantine scenes hold too many cliches (the callous military men, an escape in poor disguises, a tense moment at the guard-post, etc.) and the rescue scenes in the sewers hold too much potential for the movie to be split so evenly between the two. Still, much of the humor is found during the quarantine sequence, so it is not a terrible thing. The third line follows Hyun-seo as a prisoner of the beast.
Joining Hie-bong and Gang-du in the hunt for Hyun-seo are the other two siblings, Nam-Joo and Nam-il, who also apparently have “issues”, if not immediately as apparent as Gang-du’s mental illness. During the search in the sewers for Hyun-seo, the family bonds, if only peripherally. Luckily, there are no hugging and crying scenes, or uncalled-for promises of “being a better brother” and that type of nonsense. In fact, the grandfather does most of the talking, and what happens with the brothers and the sister is indicated almost entirely by their actions, as they work together to do battle. What binds them is simply the fact that they are family; they may not get along, but they have each other’s backs, and they all love Hyun-seo.
The most engaging horror scenes involve Hyun-seo, alive and hiding in the sewer-lair of the beast. The threat of discovery looms over every scene, and her efforts to escape are brave and clever. Hyun-seo, a child herself, ends up mothering another poor child who is tossed into the pit. She listens for the monster, learning to play dead. She plans escape, tying together the clothes of the dead bodies to make a rope, and makes a daring leap off of the monster’s back; and we have no idea when the monster might appear.
After the last battle (for there has to be a final, grand battle between the family and the monster), we realize that the slow-minded Gang-du has grown up over the course of the story. At the beginning, he is like a baby, sleeping through the day, failing at simple tasks, wailing uncontrollably when Hyun-seo is taken and when he is seized by the scientists. By the end, he takes initiative, stands up to face the enemy and even, symbolically, cuts off the blond highlights in his hair.
I think it is very important for a film like The Host to avoid an unrealistically happy ending. In order to stand out in a genre such as monster movies, adding a depth to the characters and some sharp-edged comedy is not enough to set it apart. I believe the filmmakers did an excellent job of finishing what they started: a monster tears apart the lives of a family, and whatever maturity the Park siblings may gain, there is enough tragedy to ensure that things cannot be better at the end than they are at the beginning.