A Review of The Host, a 2007 Korean Creature Feature
Directed by Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder), The Host is an entertaining hodgepodge of social satire, monster movie tripe and political commentary. It is also a 2008 award winner—The Blue Dragon Film Awards among others.
Unlike Godzilla and The Pacific Rim, or earlier chill thrills like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms where the action is focused on government, scientists and military firepower, The Host is about ordinary people taking on the extraordinary.
The humor in this film reminded me of the 1990 movie Tremors where “just plain folks” banded together to take down giant worms summoned by mining and seismic activity. The ingenuity of hired hands and town folk as they do battle is similar to The Host, where a family pursues a monster to rescue one of their own.
I did wonder about the title. Who or what was “The Host.”?
The story begins in Seoul, where in a U.S. Military lab, a snotty white guy (Scott Wilson—pre The Walking Dead) tells his Korean assistant that the formaldehyde bottles taking up shelf space have dust on them. If there’s one thing this higher up can’t stand, it’s dust. The solution? Pour it all down the drain. This toxic chemical will end up in the Han River, but the boss ignores the obvious.
Next we’re at the Han River where a fisherman catches a tiny creature, something peculiar enough to show to his buddy. The man and his buddy speculate on what the creature is and if it’s a fish, what about those legs? Is the Host where this thing came from? Whatever the tiny creature is, we know it’s not good when before committing suicide, a man on a bridge stares at the water below and says something down there wants him. Little fishy is going to get a lot bigger.
Now, we’re in a tiny snack shack by the water. It’s a family owned business serving food to picnickers spending a peaceful day on the riverbank. Gang-doo (Kang-ho Song—Memories of Murder, The Snowpiercer), son of the proprietor, is a fortyish man-child who sneaks food meant for “mat” customers who are relaxing on the river’s shore—that fast food octopus is missing a leg. Clearly, Gang-doo is no host, especially since his hair is bleached an unappetizing orange yellow.
As Gang-doo sits inside, watching television, his twelve-year old daughter, Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko—Snowpiercer) joins him. He offers her a beer, “You’re in middle school; it’s fine,” he assures her. Very unhosty. They’re watching as the family star (isn’t there always one in every family who can do no wrong) Gang-doo’s sister, champion archer Nam-Joo (Doona Bae– Cloud Atlas, Sense8), competes in a tournament. Then Gang-doo’s father Hie-bong (Hie-bong Byeon—Memories of Murder) tells him to take some snacks to their customers. Now things get interesting. That something is still in the water. As if we didn’t know! Customers forget to eat their octopus legs as they watch the mysterious shape. Since resisting an impulse is not in Gang-doo’s skill set, he throws a beer can at it—or maybe to it. Is the creature bringing out Gang-doo’s inner-host? Then, customers start throwing food and cans.
Can you guess what happens next? That’s right, it’s monster time! When we see it, we realize that this thing wouldn’t even qualify as Godzilla’s baby brother, but it’s nasty just the same. The size of a teen T-Rex, this cutie can run. Unlike Godzilla who eats radioactive anything, fish boy eats people. Opening like an umbrella, its four-cornered mouth with a fang at each corner reminded me of the Predator. Using its snaky tail like a to-go box, it grabs people “for later”.
When a U.S. soldier decides to fight the monster, Gang-doo helps. Not a good choice. The soldier gets eaten as Gang-doo hurries his daughter away. When they stumble, he grabs the hand of the wrong little girl. Poor Hyun-seo finds herself wrapped in the to-go tail as the monster decides it’s had enough fun and swims for home.
Later, we see photos of victims on a makeshift shrine. Gang-doo’s sister Nam-joo arrives as does brother Nam-il (Hae-il Park—Memories of Murder), an unemployed college grad. Gang-doo and his dad burst into tears. Then each family member tries to outdo the other’s grief over the loss of Hyun-seo. The contest becomes weirdly funny as they all fall to the floor, trying to out-mourn each other. Hyun-seo, a no nonsense twelve year-old, would be shaking her head in embarrassment.
Soon, Gang-doo and family find themselves in a holding area as government officials try to sort things out. The Korean government seems to be a movie favorite target. We see the confusion, boredom and politicking of various government types while they ignore the concerns of Gang-doo, his family and everyone else. After TV news reports that the American soldier who chased the monster (guess the monster spit him out) was not dead, but alas, covered with strange “spots,” doctors warn Gang-doo not to eat anything. Why? Eating might feed the “infection”! Not to worry. The Americans are planning to spray the river area with “Agent Yellow”! Ouch. As soon as no one’s looking, Gang-doo opens a can of food. Then a cell phone rings. It’s Hyun-seo! She’s in a sewer and soon will be a monster munchie, so please come get her!
Despite his garbled pleas, no bureaucrat takes Gang-doo seriously, but his family does. Determined to save Hyun Seo, the family escapes and hijacks an ambulance; then, with the help of Dad’s cash and credit, they acquire an Agent Yellow spray truck. They’re stopped at a checkpoint, but bluff their way through, telling the guard the truck is from a secret division.
Hiding in another snack shack, they wait, rifles ready for Godzilla Junior to appear. While they eat, each family member, including Gang-doo, imagines sharing food with Hyun-seo. When the monster shows up, the bullets only make him cranky, and Nam-joo’s arrows miss. The nasty thing chases after all three and Grandpa makes the ultimate sacrifice. Goodbye Hie-bong!
Now we’re in the sewer. Hung-seo crouches in a hollow pipe embedded in the wall. Each time fish boy drops another body, Hyun-seo waits until it’s safe, then searches for a live cell phone.
Back at the river, the authorities capture Gang-doo, but the sibs get away. Somehow, Hyun-seo manages to phone Gang-doo again, giving him a better idea where she is. Looking for more ”virus” (the virus was made up to cover the pollution incident), doctors lobotomize Gang-doo. Not only does the procedure have no effect, Gang-doo seizes the opportunity to escape again. We see all three siblings figure out Hyun-seo’s location. Will they be in time?
Meanwhile back in the sewer, another load of groceries is dropped, including two young boys. One, five-year old Se-joo is alive and Hyun-Seo takes charge. Se-joo and his brother were homeless and hungry. As they wait for the monster to return, she comforts him by promising a variety of tasty meals they will share. She improvises a rope, managing to hook it to an overhead grid. Alas, it’s too short. Then, double alas, the monster comes back and takes a nap right under the rope. You can see the wheels turning in Hyun-seo’s mind as she calculates the risk of using fish boy as a step stool. As she tiptoes up the creature’s back, a tail whips out. Like Hyun-seo, monsters know how to play possum! Oh no!
The three siblings, each on their own path, are seeking Hyun-seo. Nam-joo shoots some arrows but almost gets eaten. Where are the authorities—the police, the U.S. Military, the Korean Army? They’re getting ready to spray Agent Yellow. Disguised as a student protester, aided by a homeless guy with a gas can, Nam-il bumps into Gang-doo and Nam-joo just as the monster reappears. They douse fish boy with gasoline as Agent Yellow wafts through the air. Ears bleeding from Agent Yellow, the siblings battle the beast as it weakens. Then Nam-joo shoots an arrow and lights the fire. Gang-doo finishes the thing off with a pole just as he sees a little hand protruding from the beast’s gullet. It must be and it is Hyun-seo! Pulling her out, he sees her other arm wrapped around the boy.
Sadly Hyun-seo is no more. It must be a Korean thing—no similar American movie would tolerate such a downer.
The Host ends in another snack shack by the river. It’s night and it’s snowing. Inside, Gang-doo ignores the television (he has changed) as he feeds Se-joo the tasty foods promised by Hyun-seo. As the little boy enjoys his meal, the “Host” sits by the window. Rifle in hand, Gang-doo guards against the unknown night.