Of Monsters and Families: The Host

The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)

Where Memories of Murder was a deliberate police procedural, Bong Joon-ho’s The Host is a delirious monster movie for the modern world. Hollywood has been busy over the last ten years remaking Japanese horror films and loading up on blood and guts for the teenagers of America. The total lack of imagination in most American horror comes into focus when watching The Host, which is a refreshing return to some of the classical values that shaped the horror genre during it’s golden years at Universal during the 30s. The key ingredient here seems so simple that it’s a wonder that American producers don’t get it – the movie isn’t actually about the monster, it’s about the people in the monster’s path.

The monster is an amphibious creature that comes to life when a couple of doctors decide to dump large quantities of formaldehyde into the Huang River. Bong introduces the thing in one of the most exhilarating  set piece sequences in recent cinema. The river walk that he arrives at is a peaceful place in the middle of summer; tourists and citizens alike are enjoying themselves on a summer day with picnics and bike rides only to have this beast jump up and wreck their serenity. It doesn’t appear to have any rhyme or reason to it’s actions, but it does pick up a few humans along the way, carrying them into the Seoul sewer system for dinner. Other than quickness, size and strength, the beast has no distinguishing features as a movie monster, other than that it is UGLY. Bong isn’t interested in wowing us with a  new conceptual animal with a unique power. His interests are more human.

The film’s narrative strains are not exactly complicated, but they are multi-leveled. Bong deals with issues that are both intimate and broad, ranging from family dynamics to government secrecy. Among the people that are taken by the monster is a pre-teen girl named (…). She somehow manages to survive the grip of the monster and she hides herself in a little sewer cove. Her whole family – her father, an aunt and uncle, as well as her grandfather – are on the hunt for her. Everyone else is on the hunt for them.

The monster is said to have carried a virus with it, and that anyone who came into contact with it will be quarantined. Capable (and incapable) members of the family must find a way to elude the authorities and locate the young girl in a complex Seoul sewer system. A set-up like this one creates grand opportunities for suspense and some major gross-out moments, as when the monster spews a load of assorted bones and body parts next to the young girl. This is a film about hunting, finding, escaping, and rescuing. It’s emotional core is the love of a father for his daughter, whom he thought was dead, but this is a film about action and movement. There’s a lot of suspense throughout the whole film, but almost every scene is built around some element of suspense as well, creating what seems to be little movies within the whole movie at times.

Above all else, The Host is an entertaining ride when so many horror and action movies today are tedious at best. Despite it’s themes of family dynamics and biological catastrophe, The Host is basically a light film, with the focus being on bringing a great time to the audience. The pacing is swift and the action is beautifully constructed with none of the snatch and grab techniques seen in the Bourne films. It apparently worked, because The Host went on to be one of the highest grossing films In Korea. If you need to pick a point to enter Bong’s filmography, The Host is probably his most accessible work.

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