Monster movies tend to keep their monsters in the shadows for as long as possible, building to a big reveal. Steven Spielberg pioneered the modern template out of sheer necessity—the mechanical sharks created for Jaws frequently malfunctioned, so a single ominous dorsal fin wound up getting a lot of screen time. This made the shark’s first real appearance (“You’re gonna need a bigger boat”) all the more galvanizing, and subsequent films emulated the less-is-more approach. Alien showed its title character only in bits and pieces until the finale; even then, it appears in darkness, with strobe lights obscuring the view somewhat. Tremors placed its carnivorous worms underground, allowing them to wreak havoc for a long time as a disturbance in the soil. More recently, Cloverfield took this concept to such an extreme that the entire film consists of shaky-cam footage that offers only fleeting glimpses of the behemoth destroying Manhattan. Even those movies that do give viewers a good, clear look at their monsters don’t do so right off the bat. That would kill the suspense. It would leave the film with nowhere to go. It would be counterproductive.
Unless it would be awesome. For whatever perverse reason, Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer) opted to ignore the creature-introduction playbook when he made The Host a decade ago. The film opens with toxic chemicals being poured into Seoul’s Han River, over a scientist’s objections. Anyone familiar with the genre knows that some hideously mutated fish-thing will eventually emerge from the river. Normally, though, a movie of this sort would feature some initial “unexplained” fatalities or disappearances—swimmers who seem to get abruptly pulled under and never resurface, that sort of thing. Authority figures would be confounded. News reports would perhaps speculate about a serial killer working the river district. Only much later would the terror’s true nature be revealed.
Bong had no interest in any of that standard misdirection. Instead, he does something so unexpected that it’s actually difficult to process for a moment if you don’t know that it’s coming. I saw The Host at Cannes, where it had its world premiere, and can attest that its very first audience was completely blindsided. Here’s the scene in which the monster first appears, which occurs less than 15 minutes into the movie. If you’ve never seen it before, prepare to smile, if not laugh aloud, at the brazen incongruity involved.
Bong craftily begins with the initial sighting already in progress. When Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), who works with his family at a riverside snack bar, wanders down to deliver an order, he’s largely ignored, because people have just noticed something strange hanging from a nearby bridge. Seen initially from a distance, it looks more like a giant cocoon or seed pod than like an animal (but nothing at all like construction equipment, as one onlooker theorizes). Nobody seems particularly alarmed… though Bong hints that they should be, briefly cutting to Gang-du’s dad (Byun Hee-bong) and daughter (Go Ah-sung) as the latter screams in what sounds like terror but turns out to be glee. (They’re watching her aunt win an archery competition.) When he cuts back, the creature drops into the river—we get a closer look this time, albeit from behind; a couple of limbs and a tail are clearly visible—and is then briefly seen as a murky underwater shape. People throw food at it. Then it apparently swims away. So far, this is very much in keeping with how monster movies generally parcel out visual information. The scene appears to be over.
It is not.
If I were to draw up a list of the cinematic moments that have made me most giddy over the past decade, the sight of The Host’s mutant fish-thing just sort of lumbering down the riverside in broad daylight, with people oblivious to its presence practically until it runs them down, would rank somewhere near the top. We know something has happened, because Gang-du suddenly stops and stares blankly in the direction of the camera (whereas everybody else is still looking toward the river, where the creature was last seen), and Bong dramatically pushes in toward him, and Lee Byung-woo’s score suddenly kicks in with a drawn-out stinger. But the next shot registers as surreal all the same, in large part because of how gleefully it defies convention. Gang-du’s expression when he sees the thing is perfect: He looks faintly confused. That’s how I felt, too. “Wait a second. Is that…? That can’t be…? Wait a second.” The fact that the monster can just barely be seen behind a crowd at first is a factor, and so is its goofy amphibious gait. Mostly, though, I think it’s the subconscious recognition that it’s way too soon for this to be happening.
In truth, The Host is heavily front-loaded, action-wise. Bong can get away with a premature reveal and attack because he’s working in several different modes here; the film is as much family melodrama and political agitprop as it is creature feature, and the monster recedes in importance as it goes along. (By the end, the Korean government has become the true monster, though it was an American military officer who ordered the chemicals dumped into the river.) But man, does he deliver in this set piece. Look at the gorgeous choreography of that first shot, during which the camera travels 180 degrees to follow the monster as it plows through the crowd, with Gang-du sprinting alongside it in the foreground. The monster is a fairly convincing CG effect (especially given The Host’s at best mid-level budget, by Hollywood standards), but it’s the way it’s placed in the environment that really sells the fantasy. I love that it disappears from the frame after flicking some poor soul into the river with its tail, then wanders back into the shot a few seconds later, only to immediately slip and tumble down the incline. It’s believably haphazard, though Bong and his team clearly must have planned the action out carefully, knowing where they’d insert the monster.
Fantastically witty moments abound. The girl who’s listening to music on headphones, blissfully unaware of the panicked, blurry figures running past her, has been seen in other movies, but the way she finally turns to look an instant before being smacked in the face by a fin (or whatever) and dragged along demonstrates exquisite timing. I’m also partial to the silent-comedy spectacle of Gang-du picking up the “no trumpets” sign (apparently this is a real sign, common in Asia, that’s meant to convey “Don’t blow your car horn”) and running full-tilt between a couple of semis, with the sign’s base, just visible above the trucks, showing his progress. And while I chose to end the scene when it cuts back to the archery competition, there’s more fun mayhem afterward. More than anything else, though, I always flash on the shot of the old woman observing the chaos from what appears to be an elevated train, as the monster galumphs below in full view. Like Gang-du a few minutes earlier, she doesn’t look frightened or concerned. She just doesn’t understand what she’s seeing. Bong somehow manages to inspire the same feeling in an audience that expressly knew what was coming. It’s a gloriously anarchic achievement.