This monster movie from the Republic of Korea is one of the best films of its kind, thanks to director Bong Joon-ho’s insistence on touching all the bases: THE HOST seems equal parts horror story, domestic drama, paranoid thriller, and political satire. Perhaps the filmmaker’s greatest accomplishment is that his loftier ambitions never undermine the horror; he mixes the various ingredients perfectly, creating a wonderfully convincing story in which the monster’s existence is thoroughly believable, its predations intense and terrifying.
In 2000, an American doctor (Scott Wilson) on a military base in South Korea orders toxic chemicals poured down a drain that leads into the Han River. Six years later, a mutant monster emerges from the river in broad daylight, attacking helpless picnickers and snatching the young Park Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung) from her mentally slow father Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), who works at a food stand owned by his father Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong). Gang-du, Hee-bong, and Gang-du’s brother and sister, Nam-il (Park Hae-il) and Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na), are quarantined by the government, who believe the creature is the host for a deadly virus. That night, Gang-du receives a brief call from Hyun-seo on her dying cell phone, telling her father that she is trapped in the creature’s lair, somewhere in a dark sewer. Gang-du tries to convince the government doctors and other officials that his daughter is alive, but they think the mentally challenged man was hallucinating or dreaming. Hee-bong pays some crooks to break them out of quarantine, and the family goes searching the sewers for Hyun-seo. Meanwhile, the monster deposits more victims in its lair, all of them dead except for a young boy that Hyun-seo protects, hiding him in a small hole where the monster cannot reach. Eventually, Gang-du’s brother Nam-il, a former student protestor, seeks help from an old college friend who now works at the phone company, tracing Hyun-se’s phone call and thus narrowing the search. Gang-du is captured, and an American scientist (Paul Lazar) insists on an operation to find evidence of the virus, which proves elusive. Gang-du escapes and rejoins his family, tracing the monster to its lair, but the creature swallows the two children it has captured and swims away, inadvertently coming ashore near a protest that has formed around an American attempt to eradicate the alleged virus with a substance called “Agent Yellow.” As the yellow gas disperses the protesters, the Park family attacks the creature, and Gang-du strives to pull his daughter from the monster’s maw.
Much of the strength of THE HOST comes from the way that Bong Joon-ho keeps the Park family front and center, concentrating on their ordeal as the circumvent government interference in their attempts to rescue Hyun-seo. Their interactions and reactions – at first dysfunctional but eventually cooperative – allow the director to carefully orchestrate the emotional effects for maximum impact, creating some truly terrifying sequences without resorting to special effects overkill or graphic violence. The scenes of Hyun-seo in the monster’s lair and intense and heart-breaking as this young girl is forced not only to keep herself alive but also to take on the role of protector for the young boy who becomes her companion.
The Host itself is an intriguing monstrosity whose disorganized anatomy hints at its origin – despite its agility and strength, this mutant result of unnatural growth seems to have too many limbs and appendages, as if bits and pieces of other organisms were incorporated into its structure at various stages during its growth.
Bong Joon-ho pulls off a major coup by fully revealing the creature in the first fifteen minutes, completely overturning the usual genre convention of keeping the monster hidden for the first hour or so; and not only that, the director clearly reveals the Host in bright daylight. As it comes barreling down the causeway, scattering hapless citizens like frightened rabbits, the sense that you are seeing a peaceful reality shattered by the intrusion of something unnatural and horrible, is almost palpable. As a director, Bong Joon-ho does not utilize lots of flashy style to build the suspense or sell the monster, but he does know make expert use of available techniques (such as slowing the action down at key points and dropping out the sound, creating a dreadful sense of anticipation).
The computerized special effects used to realize the beast betray some of the shimmery look one associates with CGI, but over all they are more than convincing enough, and some of the monster’s actions are wonderfully choreographed, particularly the beast’s nifty trick of swinging on the underside of a bridge with an almost Tarzan-like grace.
Fortunately, the beast never fully steals the show; the actors somehow manage to hold onto their share of the screen. The performances are sympathetic and endearing, if occasionally over-the-top by American standards. The funeral scene, in which the Park family grieves for Hyun-seo, whom the believe dead, borders on the humorous with the exaggerated hysterics of the family, fighting among themselves and rolling on the floor while eager reporters snap photos of the turmoil
Humor is clearly an intentional part of the film’s formula, but most of it is directed at the government forces, who fail to help the citizens in need. (A buffoon in a Hazmat suit slips and falls before delivering a speech to a crowd, then tries to regain his poise as if no one has noticed.) Fortunately, the jokes are never at the expense of the horror; they underline the dilemma of the lower-class heroes, victims not only of a monster but also of a government unsympathetic to their situation. Never does the humor border on parody or nudge the audience into thinking, “It’s only a monster movie; just enjoy it and have a ball.” (The one possible exception is the crowd who take shelter, locking out a screaming woman – only to have the monster brush past the woman and plunge into the shelter, killing most of the people inside – a nice ironic touch that mixes humor with horror.)
At nearly two full hours in length, the pacing may not always be lightening fast, but the slow, quite moments lend a layer of believability to the film, helping us understand the characters and sympathize with their plight, particularly Hyun-se’s desperate attempts at survival. The child-in-jeopardy motif is handled with complete conviction, milking the suspense and not copping out with an easy, phony resolution. As American horror films trend toward a visceral aesthetic that subordinates story to the presentations of grotesque visuals, it is nice to see a monster movie that really knows how to scare an audience – not just shock them or gross them out, but make them genuinely afraid about what is happening on screen. On a level of pure intensity, THE HOST may not match ALIEN, but it works perfectly well on its own terms – poignant, sad, and scary.
The doctor who orders the toxic chemicals dumped down the drain is played by Scott Wilson, who co-starred with Robert Blake in the film version of IN COLD BLOOD, based on the non-fiction novel by Truman Capote.
Because the monster was the result of these toxic chemicals, some viewers see THE HOST as making an anti-American statement. Bong Joon-ho denies this, pointing out that the scene is based on a real-life incident; having used that as a starting point, it made sense to have a running line of satire directed at the American military presence in the Republic of Korea, but he sees this as only a small part of the overall satirical thrust of the film, which targets the South Korean government for not helping the weak and helpless characters.
“It is true that there is lots of political satire in this film, and that was quite intentional,” explains Bong Joon-ho. “In regards to the opening scene, there was a famous case seven years ago, where toxins were poured into the Han River. I felt that story also goes in tune with the conventions of the monster genre. For someone who’s preparing a film of a creature coming out of the Han River, to have a case like this in front of me became a very good starting point, and I was very inspired by that event. That was the inspiration for the opening scene and the starting point for the whole story. Of course there would be a line of satire of America; it just became very natural to have it, and it follows in the conventions of the monster genre. But in the broad sense, to compress it or simply it as an anti-American film, I think that’s not correct because there’s always a history of political satire in the sci-fi genre. If you look in the broad sense, the American satire is just one part of it. There is also the satire against the Korean society and, even further, the whole system that doesn’t protect the weak people. That’s the greater flow of satire in this film, not that one part of anti-Americanism.”
One should also point out that, when the creature first appears and the crowd on the riverside panics, only two characters actually manage to keep their heads and try to help: Gang-du and an American man (the one who we later learn becomes “infected”) fight the creature side by side, even though they have never met before. This certainly suggests that the film is not targeting American people per se but rather government institutions, one of which happens to be American.
SPOILER. One plot point in the film that is not clearly explained regards the government’s attempt to quarantine against a virus. Although an American who fights the creature show symptoms of an infection, it is later explained that he actually died during an operation, not from a virus, and no trace of a pathogen has been found. Viewers conclude that the virus is either a mis-diagnosis or an outright fraud, but are left with no explanation for the dead American’s symptoms. Was he allergic to the monster?
Director Bong Joon-ho explains, “There is no virus. In terms of Donald, who died, he actually died from shock on the operating table. The red rash on his body came from contact with the creature. Since the creature is a mutant of toxic waste, it was probably just a bad reaction to it. It’s not a contagious virus or anything like that. That whole virus thing is misinformation.”
THE DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT
The Han River: The River has flown with us and around us. A fearsome Creature makes a sudden appearance from the depths of this river, so familiar and comfortable for us Seoulites. The riverbanks are instantly plunged into a bloody chaos. The film begins at the precise moment, in which a space familiar and intimate to us, is suddenly transformed into the stage of an unthinkable disaster and tragedy.
The Family: Park Gang-du and his family have led ordinary, repetitive lives, never really extending beyond the confines of their small food stand on the banks of the Han River. They are devastated by the emergence of the Creature. Robbed of their peaceful daily routines, Gang-du and his family nonetheless throw themselves into a life-and-death struggle against the Creature. The film shows how these exceedingly normal people, no different from our everyday neighbors, are transformed into monster-fighting warriors.
A Fight to the Death: The Creature is not the only adversary they have to fight. For Gang-du and his family, impoverished, powerless â€œlittle people,â€ the whole world around them is revealed to be a true monster. They have to fight against it tooth and nail. In the end, the film is a record of their fight to the death against the indifferent, calculating and manipulative Monster known as the world.
-Director Bong Joon-ho
THE HOST (a.k.a. “Gwoemul,” 2006). Directed by Bong Joon-ho. Written by Bong Joon-ho, Baek Chul-hyun, Ha Won-jun. Cast: Song Kang-ho, Byeon Hie-bong, Park Hae-il, Bae Du-na, Ko Ah-sung.
Read our interview with Bong Joon-ho.