If I’d known that The Host was opening in Grapevine as well as Dallas last week, I would have reviewed it on time.
I couldn’t let it pass, though, because this is a movie that a film buff waits for, one that leaves you thinking, “Damn! I didn’t know movies could be like this!” This warped Korean bastard child of Little Miss Sunshine and War of the Worlds is the most audaciously original piece of cinema in the theaters right now.
The main character is Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), a bleached blond lump of a guy who mostly sleeps on the job at his dad’s food stand in Seoul. Gang-du’s brain seems to be permanently fogged, and he thinks nothing of handing a beer to his 13-year-old daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sun) to go with her lunch. “After all,” he says, “you’re in middle school now.”
However, he’s forced to live up to his parental responsibilities by a 30-foot-long amphibious genetically mutated creature that rises from the Han River, walks ashore, and starts eating people. The beast carries off Hyun-seo and deposits her in its lair in the city sewers to be consumed later. When she places a frantic phone call for help to her father, the whole dysfunctional Park clan unites to rescue her — Gang-du, his dad (Byeon Hie-bong), unemployed college-grad brother (Park Hae-il), and sister (Bae Du-na), who’s an underachieving competitive archer.
The convincing monster is the creation of John Cox, an Oscar winner for his animatronic work on Babe. Director/co-writer Bong Joon-ho uses the monster to scary effect during its first public appearance and in a quietly horrifying scene when Hyun-seo tries to escape its lair while it’s asleep. With a climax that puts most Hollywood action flicks to shame, this is an effective monster movie, but it’s so much more than that besides. The civic disruptions caused by the beast are the occasion for scathing social commentary on Korea’s insularity and fear of contagion, exhausted student protest movement, and sclerotic bureaucracy that kowtows to U.S. interests.
Interspersed with this high-minded stuff is a lot of lowbrow slapstick humor and verbal gibes traded by the Park siblings about their shortcomings. The comedy takes over at the oddest times, as in the way-over-the-top early scene when the Parks wail in unison over the dead (they think) Hyun-seo, or Grandpa’s maudlin, ridiculous monologue explaining why Gang-du’s brain is so slow. The movie’s wild shifts in tone pose a hefty challenge for the cast, and the actors come through with flying colors, especially Song, who’s the Philip Seymour Hoffman of Korean cinema — a big, burly guy with incredible dramatic range.
This perfectly unpredictable movie gives no hint as to whether you’re about to see a tender family moment, a dismemberment, or a gag involving a guy’s bare ass. The uncertainty will have you gasping for breath. Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead stitched together disparate genres more seamlessly, but the size and scope of Bong’s film leaves even that awesome British movie behind. Mind-blowing, category-busting, and a great deal of fun, The Host is a firm rebuke to anyone who believes that movies have run out of stories to tell.
Starring Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sun. Directed by Bong Joon-ho. Written by Baek Chul-hyun, Bong Joon-ho, and Ha Won-jun. Rated R.