Host, The (South Korea, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Host is a strange little movie: part creature feature, part social commentary, and part slapstick comedy. The problem with the film is that the sum isn't greater than the parts and the pieces don't fuse in a way that's consistently pleasing or cinematically satisfying. While the monster movie aspects of the film represent great fun, The Host's political subplot is overlong, uninteresting, and obvious. The comedy, which surfaces in seemingly random, broad bursts, is more often bizarre than funny (people taking pratfalls are the most common), and the ending is a downer.

The premise is simple enough: Chemicals dumped into the Han River from a U.S. military base create a mutant creature that grows alarmingly large. One day, the thing emerges from the water and starts eating passers-by. Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung), the pre-teen daughter of lazy Seoul snack vendor Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), is abducted by the monster and taken to its lair for future consumption. Gang-du mounts a rescue operation, aided by his father, Hie-bong (Byeon Hie-bong); his sister, archery medalist Nam-joo (Bae Du-na); and his brother, alcoholic Nam-il (Park Hae-il). However, the government is concerned about a SARS-like epidemic and Gang-du and his family end up in quarantine while the monster runs rampant and shows interest in a Hyun-seo snack.

The creature feature aspects of The Host are enjoyable, even if the characters never achieve more than a semblance of two-dimensionality. This is monster movie making in the great Japanese tradition, although with better special effects. Like Godzilla, the monstrosity in The Host has been awakened and mutated by modern technology. This is what happens when you pollute the water! The film's best scenes are those involving Hyun-seo trapped in the creature's lair. Her cat-and-mouse game with it generates a good deal of tension; it's annoying when the movie cuts from her scenes to those involving pointless secondary characters involved in the political/virus subplot. Indeed, most of the scenes involving the monster are riveting, especially its high energy first appearance and the tense final standoff. Every time the movie becomes somnambulant (a lapse that occurs too often), the creature makes an appearance to give a jolt of energy to the story and the audience.

Fans of B-grade monster movies will find things to appreciate about The Host, but even die-hards will notice how disjointed things become. I can accept the half-hearted attempts at character development (at least one of which, wherein the characters doze off, should have been cut) and the sometimes cheesy special effects, but the movie's attempts at humor are forced and the political aspects of the storyline bloat the running length to the point where The Host threatens to wear out its welcome. The ending is so serious and so gloomy that it's like a slap in the face, although one could laud the movie for daring to go in this direction. It's unusual if a little depressing.

The Host is director Bong Joon-ho's third feature, and the one that will get the most widespread international distribution. It opened to great fanfare in South Korea, where it drew huge crowds and set box office records. (This leads to a question about whether there are cultural elements to a movie like this that cause it to play better in its country of origin than elsewhere.) The American reception is expected to be muted. Subtitles will curtail the size of potential audiences and the movie's uneven tone and pace will further erode box office intake. The Host is passable entertainment for monster movie lovers, but offers little of value to anyone else.

Host, The (South Korea, 2006)

Director: Bong Joon-ho
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Byeon Hie-bong, Park Hae-il, Bae Du-na, Ko Ah-sung
Screenplay: Bong Joon-ho, Baek Chul-hyun, Ha Jun-won
Cinematography: Kim Hyung-ku
Music: Lee Byung-woo
U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Run Time: 1:59
U.S. Release Date: 2007-03-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: English subtitled Korean
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1