Principal Cast : Song Kang-ho, Byun Hee-bong, Park Hae-il, Bae Doo-na, Go Ah-sung, Oh Dai-su, Lee Jae-eung, Lee Dong-ho, Yoon Je-moon, Yim Pil-sung, Scott Wilson, Paul Lazar, Brian Lee.
Synopsis: A monster emerges from Seoul’s Han River and begins attacking people. One victim’s loving family does what it can to rescue her from its clutches.
An endearing, loopy, bizarre creature-feature, Bong Joon-ho’s The Host is as cool now as it was back in 2006, the year of its release. Hard as it is to imagine the Academy Award-winning director of Parasite hitting the mainstream with such a silly premise, the satirical nature of the film’s tone, coupled with a relatively negative portrayal of authority figures (both in the United States and within the South Korean setting, where the film was made) ensured the film’s popularity for both Western and Eastern audiences remains undiminished in the years since it arrived. Boasting a solid cast, a then-wallet-stretching budget for visual effects (accomplished by both New Zealand’s Weta Digital and now defunct effects house The Orphanage) and a surprising amount of heart, The Host’s pleasures are many and its entertainment value is high, something few films of this type could claim with a straight face.
In South Korea in the year 2000, a US Military pathologist orders several hundred bottles of formaldehyde down the drain, his assistant unwilling given the environmental danger it poses to the nearby River Han. Years later, a dull-witted father, Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) runs a riverside snack bar with his family, daughter Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung) and father Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bon), while his sister, Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na) competes as a national archer, and brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il) has become an alcoholic college graduate. When their idyllic life is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a hideous creature born of mutation, which kills and kidnaps several local people, including Hyun-seo, Park is driven to rescue her from the lair of the beast and becomes obsessed with tracking it down. Meanwhile, the government forces decide to use a mysterious virus as a cover story for the beast’s spree, and focus their attention on hunting down all those who have come into contact with it.
The Host is particularly interesting as a monster film (in my opinion) for a very specific reason; there’s almost no buildup to the creature’s “big reveal”. Whereas Hollywood monster films always try and hide the creature in darkness or shadow until some climactic revelatory moment, Bong Joon-ho pretty much shows us the creature from a few moments after the short preamble. And he doesn’t hide it at all during the film, showcasing it front and center throughout the film until the inevitably conflagratory climax. It’s a weird decision for a major film such as this to not obfuscate the budget a touch by keeping the ugly mutant fish thing deep in the shadows for a while before some kind of impact moment where the audience can gasp in horror at what the digital artisans have achieved. Does this work for the film? Perhaps: the visual effects need to at least stand up to considerable scrutiny throughout if you’re going to have your monster in full sunlight for virtually the entire film. Do they?
Sadly, the CG monster doesn’t hold up particularly well given that it’s almost entirely computer graphics. Take a comparative film creature, the one from Peter Hyams’ criminally underrated The Relic, which came out nearly a decade before. The creature from that film was predominantly a live-action puppet, giving it an on-screen texture absent here in The Host. Hyams understood that keeping your central monster in the dark, a hidden shape lurking in shadow and menace, is far more effective than trying to build tension with your creature full on the screen from the word go, and when you do reveal the monster it actually has to have some kind of weight, some kind of presence. The Host’s creature unfortunately feels too weightless, too dependent on some iffy CG effects to deliver the goods, and although maybe back in 2006 they might have passed muster, today they simply do not. Recognising your limitations for generating tension isn’t one of the film’s strongest elements. There’s an entire sequence at the end of the film, in which the creature is totally on fire – again mirroring Hyams’ The Relic – that looks positively…. laughable, for want of a better phrase.
I guess I can see why Bong Joon-ho tried to go an alternative route with this film, because there are legitimately creepy and tense times within the monster aspects of the story. The creature’s lair, a concrete chasm deep within the city’s sewer system, suits the animalistic nature of the mutated fish thing down to the ground, allowing for a moderate build up of behaviours and reactions to his captured prey that allows Joon-ho to maximise the insidiously malevolent tension within scenes set there. The fate of young Hyun-seo is resonant of the film, her survival predicated upon the actions of her family, or more specifically her until now layabout father. Inbuilt familial bonds form a great amount of The Host’s natural subtext, and I think this one of the story’s strongest elements. The bond between Park and his father, played by a terrific Byun Hee-bong, is a strong one tested to the limit once the creature arrives, whilst paternal guilt and melancholy seeps into the core of the film’s fight-or-flight narrative.
Another of the film’s strengths is the performance of the largely Korean cast. The film does have a couple of links to the United States (perhaps for funding purposes, a reversal of the way Michael Bay set his last few Transformers films in China….) to allow for English speaking roles dotted into the mix, but the ensemble is mainly local Korean actors, including a soon-to-be megastar Bae Doona (Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending), acclaimed actor Byun Hee-bong (who we saw in Okja, another of Bong Joon-ho’s films) and superstar Song Kang-ho, who worked with the director again in his 2019 Oscar-winning masterpiece Parasite. But for me it’s Go Ah-sung, as Hyun-seo, who roots the film in truth. Her performance, one of the youngest in the cast, is exquisite for one so young – little wonder her career has exploded since, with roles in Snowpiercer, A Resistance and 2017’s crime drama The King added to her filmography.
Anyone who has studied the work and style of Bong Joon-ho will find formative glimpses of his more recent sense of camera placement, tone and editing here. A keen eye for detail, for pacing and a sense of showmanship (even when the CG fails him, which it does periodically here) make up for many of the film’s weaknesses, and coupled with a compelling family dynamic The Host works a treat. While overzealous marketing have touted it as “one of the greatest creature features ever made”, which is a patent untruth, the film has more working for it than against it. The kitschy nature of the film’s satirical edge, the playing with genre forms and cliches, the subtle homage to other entries within type of film, and the gung-ho style behind the camera give the film an undeniable energy that manifests as outright joy of the medium you can’t help but be swept away by. The Host might blunder into the realm of cult classic but hell if it doesn’t make that a fun ride along the way. You could do a lot worse than giving this one a shot, despite being entirely too silly for its own good.