Story: Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong) owns a small food stall in a park on the Han river. His son Gang-du
(Song Kang-ho) is no bright spark and sleeping most of the time. But Gang-du has his heart in the right place and
lovingly takes care of his 13-year old daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung).
One fine summer day Gang-du helps out his father at the food stall as usual when some park visitors notice a strange creature in the river. To their misfortune the mutated creature seems to be hungry and suddenly jumps to the shore in order to hunt some prey and scare the hell out of the park-goers. In the midst of the panic unfolding Gang-du loses sight of his daugther and she eventually falls victim to the creature...
The Han river is completely closed off by the military and everyone who was near the creature is put under quarantine.
At the funeral service for Hyun-seo rebel and unemployed graduate Nam-il (Park Hae-il), Gang-du's brother, is also present, as is his sister, amateur archer Nam-ju (Bae Du-na).
Meanwhile, the American military is talking about a strange and deadly virus the creature can pass on, which means that at least Gang-du is infected with it. But when he gets a call from Hyun-seo which proves that she is still alive and trapped, he flees from the military with his family. Together they go on a hunt for the monster to save Hyun-seo...
Review: "The Host" has every ingredient it needs to make the cash registers ring abroad as well and not just break all
records in Korea thanks to its big budget, great special effects and an outstanding look. The movie's strength doesn't lie with the
entertainment value of a fearsome monster that is hunting humans, but with the great amount of critical commentary on society,
politics and environmental pollution. The fantastic thing is that this critical voice is worked in very subtly and doesn't have
the greenie aftertaste or wannabe finger pointing of some Hollywood productions. "The Host" is credible, moving, captivating, at times extremely
ironic and at other times nicely creepy. However, be advised: Whatever you might expect from the movie you will certainly find something different
because you haven't seen something like "The Host" before.
Normally, we are used to actually see the laboriously animated creature on the screen only at the end in Korean productions since the
money is simply missing to feature special effects all the way through. But not here. After only a small introduction the unusual monster jumps right
at you, sprints through the park and eats whatever crosses its way. The dynamics and action in that long scene are absolutely impressive and you get
the impression that the creature is almost something like a raging natural disaster.
Standing out especially strong is with how much love for detail the monster has been animated and how terrific it interacts with its environment. The monster was created by the WETA studio, which has been brought into being for the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and The Orphanage Company, known for their contribution to "Star Wars - Episode 1". As a result, the monster looks very vivid. As it has been brought to life with a lot of creative brain work involved and since it in fact isn't easy to describe it looks even the more believable. After all, this is the random result of mutation. There are only a few moments when the monster doesn't look a hundred percent real.
But the film never gets as entertaining again as it is during the adrenaline-loaden initial sequence. However, that's also not its aim. Most of the time the familiy around Gang-du isn't fighting the at times very clumsily moving creature but the military, government and the media. Director Bong Joon-ho stresses this already in his introduction, in which an American military worker orders a subordinate to pour several litres of formaldehyde into the drain so that the poison eventually ends up in the Han river. And this is actually an event that took place, even though it needs to be added that this wasn't the only time that poisonous chemicals have been disposed of in the river. Bong points out, though, what his movie is about. It's not about the monster - after all it only eats in order to survive and therefore is neither good nor evil, but simply an animal. It is about the government that seems to be powerless taking action against the kind of environmental crimes that led to the monster's existence.
Yet, that's only the top of the iceberg of Bong's subtly implemented criticism; there is more. For instance there are the Americans, who
surely aren't painted in a particularly good light. You may accuse the movie of Anti-Americanism, but that would be exaggerated, and to be honest
the Bush-government really didn't make it easy not to have certain reservations concerning America's foreign policy. In the movie the American
government wants to kill off the creature with a chemical called Agent Yellow which supposedly can't do humans any harm, and naturally you have
to feel reminded of Agent Orange that didn't just damage the health of Americans with lasting results but also that of ten thousands of Koreans
fighting alongside America in the war as well.
Furthermore, there are references to SARS and especially at the end when the news reporter tells us that Americans found no evidence for... No, let's not spoil anything. Still, the fact is that you inevitably feel reminded of America's Iraq War.
Ultimately, the Korean government leaves our protagonists on their own. That is when "The Host" almost becomes a "family film". Gang-du isn't the sharpest tool in the box and partly this is supposed to become the family's downfall eventually. Nonetheless, actor Song Kang-ho ("The Foul King") delivers a three-dimensional character as does the rest of the cast. Bae Da-nu ("Barking Dogs Never Bite") as Nam-ju falls a bit by the wayside, but making up for that is Byun Hee-bong, really giving an outstanding performance as the father.
Still, what's the most dazzling is how brilliantly Bong combines drama, action and thriller as well as black comedy. It's almost as if he is telling his whole story with a cynical wink without ever pulling the rug out from under himself or lessening the emotional impact of his scenes. This becomes especially apparent during the funeral service for Hyun-seo. When the family has an emotional breakdown a man suddenly enters the scene, complaining about a car parked wrong, the photographers continuously snapshot the family's breakdown and in some way all of this looks pretty absurd. Yet, the director manages that we grieve with them, need to laugh and give way to despair at the same time. Since "Save the Green Planet" I haven't seen a blend of genres work out that well.
Nevertheless, the film isn't perfect. At some points you get the feeling that it treads water or doesn't really know what it wants
to focus on. "The Host" is a monster movie without being one. Some appearances of the creature are in fact scary, the bombastic
soundtrack adds even more to the at times very high suspense level and yet there are a few moments during which the suspense level
drops too much. The ending proves to be rather genre-typical but luckily it takes a turn to the more unusual at the last minute. Moreover, it's
easy to make out that this is no Hollywood popcorn movie as not every one of the protagonists survives until the very end. It
is mere desperation that makes the family fight against the monster and so you shouldn't be surprised to see that they are pretty
haphazard in their approach. The screenplay simply remains consistent in not letting everyone survive.
How often can you say that a "monster movie" has a lasting impression on you because of its story or message? "The Host" manages to do exactly that. The story is great and offers at least as much depth as Bong's former "Memories of Murder". As a movie "The Host" might be a little weaker than the former, but this doesn't change the fact that it is entertaining and stands as something out of the ordinary.
With his sense of black humor, his carefully incorporated criticism, nice blockbuster special effects and well elaborated protagonists, Bong offers so much more than just entertainment. A masterpiece the kind of only a country like Korea, which sometimes is pretty keen on experimenting, could deliver!