Bong Joon-ho's vastly entertaining creature feature The Host shattered box-office records in its native South Korea, which counts as an encouraging sign that Hollywood has lost its monopoly on effects-heavy escapism. But even that achievement sells short the film's specific virtues, like a daylight monster attack that could stand toe-to-toe with anything in Spielberg's oeuvre or the playful mix of tones that made Bong's previous film, Memories Of Murder, so distinctive. It can also be appreciated as a sweeping metaphor for America's toxic intervention abroad, though never to the point where it could be accused of high-mindedness. Most of all, The Host functions as a popcorn movie par excellence, loaded with the most familiar conventions, but shot through with such conviction and visual panache that even its clichés seem invigorating.
In the prologue, an American military officer orders dozens of dust-covered formaldehyde bottles to be poured down the drain, ignoring protests that the noxious liquid will go directly into the Han River, which flows into Seoul. Cut to six years later, when oafish layabout Song Kang-ho minds the riverside snack trailer owned by his family, including his scolding father Byeon Heui-bong, his young daughter Ko A-sung, and his sister Bae Du-na, who's in the national archery finals. (Not that her skills will figure into the story at some point down the line, of course.) Suddenly, on this ordinary afternoon, a giant creature with tentacles springs out of the river and starts devouring everyone in its path. When it scoops up Ko and deposits her in its sewer lair, it's up to Song and his family to rescue the girl before it's too late.
Bong and his special-effects team take a major risk by exposing their creature to the light of day, where it could easily look cheesy or disconnected from the real environment, but the CGI could pass muster in a production with 10 times its budget. Still, what really sells the monster is Bong's impressive arsenal of old-fashioned visual tricks, like tucking crucial information in the corner of the screen or outside the frame altogether. At a full two hours, The Host could use a little trimming, especially in the sagging middle section between the first-rate opening action and slapstick sequences and the suitably gripping climactic showdown. But Bong still offers a powerful rejoinder to his Hollywood counterparts: Anything you can do, I can do better.