This is Bong Joon-ho’s third feature film, following Barking Dogs Never Bite and the wonderful Memories of Murder. Korean film watchers will know that The Host broke box office records in Korea, surpassing the previous record set by Taegukgi two years ago.
Of course The Host has all the signifiers of ‘blockbuster’ about it. A big cast in a large budgeted monster flick. But such simple facts belie the often intimate and subversive nature of the film.
It has been noted elsewhere that The Host has some measure of political-environmental subtext. While this is true, these subtexts play second fiddle to thrills, skewed comedy and familial relationships.
So we get a rather gleefully glib environmental hazard – old formaldehyde dumped into the Han River – and a light political message that ponders the benefits of U.S. alliances and way of life and how easily a culture can become frayed and disunited in a crisis. Indeed, throughout the film, the central characters – a dysfunctional, broken family searching for a child taken by the creature – are kept from completing their mission by professional co-workers, the military, doctors and nurses; all the bright signs of ‘civilised’ culture.
The child is the daughter of Gang-do (Song Kang-ho), a vaguely mentally challenged yet devoted father. In order for he, his father, brother and sister to navigate their way to the child, played with great pluck by Ah-sung Ko, they must move outside of normal social parameters. They play with recognised social threats (a needle full of blood, Molotov cocktails) and enlist the help of those on society’s fringes (Ko’s character befriends the young brother of a thief, and her uncle Nam-il (Park Hae-il) is helped by a canny homeless man).
This film is primarily Gang-du’s journey to find and rescue his daughter from the monster – a mutated tadpole from all appearances and darn well done for the most part. But the film is also a catalogue of events that re-unite the family both literally and metaphorically.
In creating this odyssey Bong utilises space, air and fluid with great effect. The characters traverse great heights, emerging from the very tips of bridges, descending to the depths of sewers. The water of the Han, spit, blood, mucus, and rain play as much a part as do the chemicals and dirt that float through the air.
The Host is a physically aware film in that sense, more concerned with the monster as akin to any other natural disaster, its effects not just ruining but also running between both the environment and the social fabric.
Mention must be made of the extraordinary humour that runs through The Host, often turning ‘serious’ scenes on their head. In a film that has its shares of visceral thrills, these moments work just as effectively at keeping you off guard.
A charming, different film with occasional jolts, The Host is a fine, genre-busting effort that, while suffering from some pacing issues, is an intriguing addition to the enviro-monster canon. It will be interesting to see what Bong does with the even more sci-fi ‘Le Transperceneige’, the French post-apocalyptic comic for which he owns the rights, but on the basis of this, it should be well worth the wait.