South Korea does not have an illustrious history when it comes to giant monster movies. Its most infamous foray into the genre is 1967?s Yongary, Monster from the Deep, a low-grade ripoff of Japanese kaiju movies that makes the worst of the Godzilla series look like high art in comparison. In 1999, a popular comedian named Shim Hyung-Rae produced a big-budget remake of Yongary (with an English script and the participation of American effects artists) that was such a disaster it was withdrawn from cinemas for two years and re-jiggered as an ?Upgrade Edition,? which, to no one?s surprise, also bombed upon (re-) release.
Despite these poor precedents, expectations were high when popular director Bong Joon-Ho announced production of The Host (known simply as "Monster" in Korean). Perhaps to distance himself from this unfortunate history, the director repeatedly said in interviews that the most important element of The Host would be the drama surrounding its central family. What a pleasant surprise, then, that the monster sequences ? and everything about The Host in general ? kicks so much ass.
The central family in question are the Parks, about as hopeless a group as you could imagine. The elderly father runs a snack stand in a riverfront park with his semi-retarded son Kang-du, who plays single father to his young daughter Hyun-seo. Kang-du?s brother is an ex-radical, now out-of-work university graduate, and their sister is a skilled competitive archer who lacks the confidence to achieve any real success. Estranged and dysfunctional, the Parks? family bonds are put to the test when a giant aquatic creature ? a mutated hybrid of fish and tadpole created when the U.S. military illegally dumps toxic chemicals into Seoul?s Han River ? grabs little Hyun-seo and stashes her in its lair, to await being devoured. After the government proves to be nearly as threatening as the monster, the Parks become fugitives in their own city, simultaneously hunting for the creature?s nest in the sewers while dodging government teams out to apprehend them.
It?s no exaggeration to say that The Host is simply one of the best monster movies ever made, yet even such hyperbole seems inadequate when trying to summarize what makes the film such a success. Yes, the monster sequences are amazing, particularly the initial riverside park attack, which had audiences at both screenings I?ve attended audibly gasping at its ?you are there? immediacy. The creature effects ? a mix of CGI and animatronics, both done by a pair of American companies ? are outstanding, giving the monster a believably organic, fluid movement. Its relatively small size compared to other movie monsters (no bigger than an elephant) also contributes to its effectiveness, allowing it to pop up unexpectedly.
The Host also has a wicked sense of humor, primarily about the family members, who are neither romanticized in their simplicity nor allowed a conventional, climactic transformation into superheroes. But what else helped The Host become the top box office earner in South Korean history a scant thirty days after its initial release? It certainly doesn?t hurt that the cast features some of the biggest stars of Korean cinema (Song Kang-Ho as Kang-du, Bae Doo-na as his archer sister), as well as that the director?s previous film ? the downbeat cop thriller Memories of Murder ? was also a record-holder in its time. But most impressive of all is the expertise with which Bong and company are able to pull together so many wonderful, disparate elements to craft a film that?s simultaneously simple in its straightforward entertainment value, yet complex in how it delicately fuses so many genre elements together, without short-changing any of them. Comedy, tragedy, political commentary and social satire all share equal screen time with edge-of-your-seat monster thrills, yet everything comes together in order to serve a simple series of themes: family versus monster, government versus individual, personal weakness versus collective strength.
Bong?s comment about The Host being a family drama at its heart is right on target ? he loves these characters, warts and all, and when one family member is unexpectedly removed from the film, you may even find yourself shedding some tears. When?s the last time you were able to say that about a monster movie?