“You are dimwits, right to the end. I’ll see you in hell.” —Bridge-jumper, The Host
Whenever Bong Joon-ho’s great monster movie The Host comes up in casual conversation, the first thing mentioned is usually the audacious daytime special-effects sequence, as a mutant sea creature flips out of the Han River and starts terrorizing the populace. But my favorite moment comes a little later, when the Korean military has opted to quarantine the survivors, for fear of some mysterious virus. An officer wearing a full hazmat suit storms into a gymnasium full of survivors—many of whom are mourning their loved ones—promptly slips and falls to the floor, then springs back up again, scanning the room as if nothing had happened. It’s just a pratfall: It doesn’t advance the story, it reveals nothing about this character (whom we never see again), and it disrupts the grave business of a family grieving the loss of a little girl. Bong simply goes for a laugh. Breaks the tension. Whatever the fuck.
Fans of Bong’s 2003 breakthrough film Memories Of Murder will not be surprised by the abrupt tonal shift, which applies to his sensibility and Korean cinema more generally. Memories Of Murder is a masterful policier about the investigation of the country’s first serial killer, and it registers the shock and despair caused by a series of rapes and killings that were beyond comprehension. But it also features slapstick and broad buffoonery, mining laughs from the clash between by-the-books urban investigators and the provincial yokels who preside over the quiet rural area where the murders are taking place. In Bong’s world, comedy and tragedy can happily co-exist without diminishing each other, and while the real-life implications of escapist entertainment like The Host are much slimmer, his eagerness to play around and do something unexpected are part of what separates the film from other modern-day Godzilla movies.
Incredibly, The Host was inspired by an actual incident, up to the rampaging monster part, anyway. In February 2000, an American mortician named Albert McFarland, working under the U.S. military in Seoul, ordered his staff to dump embalming fluid down the drain, which empties into the Han River. The amount of fluid dumped remains in dispute, as does the impact of the formaldehyde once it passed through two waste-treatment plants, but McFarland was never jailed for his actions, and the case sparked significant outrage about American intervention in Korea. What could be more symbolic of America’s toxic presence in the country than an American official literally dumping toxins in the middle of Korea’s largest city? It’s a metaphor ripe for the plucking.
The prologue casts the McFarland figure as someone akin to Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, only instead of outlining a Communist fluoridation plot to impurify our “precious bodily fluids,” he obsesses over the dust that’s collected on liter after liter of formaldehyde in his lab, and he makes his assistants dispose of it the quick-and-easy way. Later, a pair of fisherman trawling the river he soiled scoop up an odd-looking guppy in a drinking cup, but tragically let the multi-tailed creature go. Then Bong cuts to his hero, Park Gang-doo (Song Kang-ho), a goofy layabout who’s introduced asleep at his father’s riverside snack truck. When the monster emerges from the Han one sunny afternoon, Gang-doo’s neglected daughter gets swept up by its tail and whisked away from the scene. Gang-doo and his family—which includes a sister whose bronze-winning Olympic archery skills may come into play later—presume the girl is dead, but when she phones him from deep inside the sewer where the monster is storing corpses, they spring into action.
The Host is one of those foreign movies—this year’s little-seen Miss Bala is another—where the language barrier is the only thing keeping it from being a hit in American multiplexes. (Little surprise that the DVD edition defaults to the dubbed version, which sounds like something a team of Magnolia Pictures interns recorded in their garage.) It’s currently the biggest box-office smash in Korean history, with more than 13 million tickets sold—this in a country of just 45 million people. And there’s a reason for that: The Host is mass entertainment, smarter than the average Hollywood blockbuster, but no less engineered for widespread consumption. Using the McFarland incident to rework Godzilla for modern-day Korea is more an ingenious populist tack than a subversive political statement. The original Godzilla conceived its monster as a rampaging mushroom cloud, barely obscuring the raw emotional fallout under the genre surface; here, the subtext is more a rallying point than a source of national anguish.
Happily, the text is often sensational. Bong’s style varies with his projects—his excellent follow-up, Mother, shows a mother’s devotion to her son through a classic gumshoe tale—but The Host gets valedictory honors at the school of Spielberg, especially when it comes time to stage a big action setpiece. The justly celebrated daytime attack sequence brings the computer effects into the light, which is rarely a good idea, but the creature is seamlessly integrated into the fleeing populace. The real secret to that sequence is where Bong places the camera: He loves the Spielbergian touch of revealing big events through wide-eyed reaction shots and offscreen space, or foreground/background touches like the out-of-focus birds that flutter away from the monster as an oblivious picnicker with headphones gets scooped off the grass. The creature is an expressive amphibian mutant, but in the sequence below, it’s remarkable how much wit and suspense comes from Bong’s consistently inventive and unconventional filmmaking choices.
The Host occasionally falls slack in the enormous space between the initial attack and the climactic showdown—at a full 120 minutes, it isn’t as tight as it could be—but Bong gets a lot of mileage out of Song’s lead performance, which brings an odd dignity to a soulful dimwit who stumbles and bumbles on the path to redemption. Song played one of the Keystone Kop types in Memories Of Murder, too, and both roles call for a rare combination of silly physical shtick and outpourings of genuine emotion. He does a great twist on the reluctant hero, a sleepy oaf who summons the courage to throw himself in the middle of danger. This is Bong’s idea of a Korean Harrison Ford.
There’s a sweetness at the core of The Host that doesn’t diminish it as the scary, stylish monster movie it needs to be. One thing Godzilla movies enforce is the way those tiny, screaming onlookers need to band together and figure out how to take the fight to the creature. Gang-doo’s family members have a Stooges-esque camaraderie at times—a shot of them mourning together by wriggling on the floor like anguished slugs is a comic highlight—but they bond under duress, and each play their part in the struggle. It’s an affirmation of the family unit, but for Bong’s purposes, it’s also the buttery popcorn of rooting interest. He’s going for cheers—and he thoroughly earns them.