Who knew a cautionary tale about illegal river pollution could be this wildly entertaining? In 2000, an American on a South Korean military base instructs his employee to empty hundreds of old, dusty bottles of formaldehyde into the Han River against regulation and, six years, later, a gigantic monster emerges to wreak havoc.
Said monster is an interesting looking creature. About the size of a small bus and tadpole shaped, it has two massive frog-like legs, a long, whip-like prehensile tail and a half-dozen other little tails jutting off it’s hulking body.
It’s impressively designed and even more impressively rendered on computer. Director Bong Joon-ho eschews the Jaws/Alien strategy of hiding the monster through most of the movie to build suspense; this amphibious beast emerges almost immediately, and engages a thrilling, broad daylight attack on a crowd of people enjoying the river. Bong’s confident in his monster–no hiding him in rain, darkness or fog ala the Jurassic Parks or that Godzilla abomination–the river monster is on full display throughout, and the animation holds up incredibly well, through the very end of the film (Its death scene is less than convincing in its veracity, but then, the movie’s over at that point anyway).
The human protagonists are the Parks, a family who run a riverside concession stand. There’s the pragmatic patriarch Byeon Hei-bong; his doofy, clumsy son Song Kang-ho; his daughter, bronze medalist archer Bae Du-na; his other son, unemployed, alcoholic college graduate Park Hae-il; and beloved granddaughter Ah-sung Ko.
When the monster swallows Hyun-seo alive, the rest of the family is plunged into grief, just as the government quarantines them all (apparently, there is a fear that the monster is the host for some sort of deadly virus). A panicky cell-phone call from Hyun-seo whose trapped in the monster’s sewer pantry rallies them, however, and they escape from the hospital to hunt the monster while evading capture themselves.
Given how rare actual attacks by mutant river monsters are, it’s tricky to declare any film portrayal of one as “realistic,” but the one that opens The Host certainly feels real, with a crowd of onlookers noticing something weird hanging from a bridge, and rubber-necking right up to the point where they realize they’re all in deadly peril.
Bong and his co-writers Chul-hyun Baek and Won-jun Ha scavenge the headlines in an attempt to seize the zeitgeist, with imagery referencing 9/11, the Asian SARS scare, the modern anti-war/anti-globalization protest movement and current war coverage, yet keep the tone nice and light. While the Parks descend into at-times beautifully conveyed melodrama (their first frenzied dinner scene in the abandoned stand comes to mind), each of them is as much a comic character as a tragic one, and there are as many funny moments as thrilling ones. The varying tones actually work in concert, only rarely clashing at all, making for a film that manages to do quite a few very different things, and does them all remarkably well.