"Man has made his newest predator"
-- tagline from ads
The Host takes the familiar genre elements of many an Asian (mostly Japanese) monster movie and gives them an altogether fresh treatment in what is, in my opinion, the best ever in the genre and one of the finest horror films ever made. Written and directed by celebrated South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, this 2006 film will keep you guessing as the plot goes through one abrupt twist after another, with plenty of scares along the way, all the while building to a surprising and emotional climax. This is great film-making in action. Hopefully the American remake, currently in some stage of production, will achieve some part of its quality.
It begins in 2000, on a U.S. Army base in South Korea, where a callous American officer (Scott Wilson) orders a Korean subordinate to pour several hundred bottles of old formaldehyde down a drain that empties into the Han River. A year or two later, a couple of fishermen catch but lose a small, mutated, fish-like creature in the river. A few more years later, a huge mutant creature emerges from the watery depths and begins terrorizing the crowds along its park-like banks. The action scenes at this early stage of the movie are excellent and are larded with bits of sly humor. It is also striking that the monster is revealed in full at this early point in the film, rather than slowly building up to a shocking revelation much later as is the usual strategy in monster movies. The wise viewer realizes already at this point that The Host is not going to be your typical monster flic.
Among those on the scene when the creature emerges are three members of the dysfunctional Park family: Grandfather Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong), a recovered alcoholic who runs a food stand beside the Han River. His eldest son, Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), an idler who's constantly falling asleep on the job. And Gang-du's precocious 13-year-old daughter, Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung), whose mother abandoned spouse and child as soon as their daughter was born.
Gang-du is among the crowd of curious onlookers looking at the creature when it attacks. He and an off-duty American soldier show courage in attempting to rescue people from the rampaging monster but their efforts lead to the American's death. As Gang-du is forced to run from the monster, he sees Hyun-seo emerge from the snack bar, unaware of the danger. He tries to lead her to safety but they becomes separated in the surging crowd fleeing the monster. With a whip of its massive prehensile tail the monster snaps the hapless girl into the air and carries her away, alive and kicking as they plunge beneath the waters of the Han.
As they grieve for the child the believe dead, the family is rounded out by another son, Nam-il (Park Hae-il), who is an unemployed university grad, and daughter Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na) who is an Olympic competition archer in need of a good sports psychologist or perhaps a prescription for some Valium®. As the families of the victims gather for a memorial service, government representatives in biohazard suits arrive demanding to know who has had direct contact with the creature. When Gang-du raises his hand, because some of the monster's blood splashed on his face during his battle with it, the family is dragged away to a hospital for quarantine. The Korean government announces that the monster is the host (hence the film's title) of an unknown and deadly virus.
While in quarantine at the hospital, Gang-du receives a cellphone call from Hyun-seo, who is not dead, but has been stashed away in the creature's sewer lair for later snacking. Her cellphone battery runs out before she can tell her father anything else and no one believes Gang-du's story of a phone call from a "dead" girl except his family. The feuding family unites as best they can to escape the hospital and mount a determined effort to rescue Hyun-seo.
The plot takes many twists and turns after that but I won't provide any spoilers by summarizing what follows from that point. The story repeatedly doesn't go where the viewer thinks it is headed and the climax is not at all what an audience expects. Along the way, director Bong Joon-Ho slyly develops the characters and examines the family's damaged relationships -- even as they attempt to hunt down the monster. The plot even inspires a degree of empathy for the creature that, after all, represents nothing less than the foul consequences of one man's disregard for the environment and the health of the public.
There is plenty of political/social commentary -- much of it pretty heavy handed but also quite funny -- aimed at the U.S. and Korean governments and also at the protesters and radical opponents of the two governments. Much of the film can be seen as a geopolitical allegory, in which the U.S. and its ally Korea react to a disaster not by capturing the monster responsible, but instead manufacturing false reasons to invade and kill countless innocents while chasing down a phantom menace. The messages, however, never get in the way of the action and only add to the humor of this superb film.