Most people reading this site are familiar with the "pick the dead people" game you can play with most basic horror movies. You know, where in the first five minutes of a movie, you guess who dies horribly at the hands of whatever psycho, monster or giant insects are terrorizing the bucolic town that provides the setting of the movie. Blonde in miniskirt, who opens the film topless? Dead. Arrogant ass who thinks everyone's insane for believing that there's a monster right outside the door? Very, very dead, impaled or torn apart.
The Host turns its slimy, green nose up at that game. Its charm, its humor, its tension, its excellence all come from the characters and the viewers' investment in them. I certainly didn't want anyone in the Park family to die. Not the five-o'clock-shadowed, hangdog Hie-bong (Byeon Hie-bong), who owns a ramen shop on the banks of the Han River in Seoul. Not his slacker, constantly sleeping son, Gung-du (Song Kang-ho), who he watches with caring exasperation, or his sharp, middle-school-aged granddaughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung). Early in the film, we see the three of them, watching Gung-du's sister get bronze in a nation-wide archery competition, cheering her on, happy for her, even though her hesitation costs her the gold.
All the while, we are waiting for the monster to appear. We know that the Han River was polluted with an incredible amount of formaldehyde years earlier, when an uncaring American doctor forced one of his Korean counterparts to pour the chemical down the drain even though they would reach the river, simply because the bottles are dusty. So, when the mutant rises from the river and attacks a crowd of people, we're ready. And when it steals young Hyun-seo from her father Gung-du's grasp, because he pulled at the wrong girl's hand in the chaos, we're horrified. It's not just that we want to see the prehensile-tailed monster get its due, we want the girl back and safe with her family.
It's here that director Bong Joon-ho starts showing us how good he at raising tension in the most unusual ways. For most of the film, it's not the monster that's lurking around every corner, but bureaucracy, greed, and arrogance. When the family, quarantined out of fear of a virus being hosted by the monster, gets a phone call from the believed-dead Hyun-seo, we don't cut to a thrilling escape from quarantine.
Instead, we see Gung-du, behind plastic, pleading with a condescending doctor that yes, it was late, but no, it wasn't a dream, could he just please trace the call because his daughter is still alive, trapped in a sewer with the monster after being regurgitated. All they get for their fear and worry is a psych evaluation for Gung-du. Throughout the film, the Park family is constantly thwarted by rigid thinking, by their lack of money, by American intervention as they seek WM . . . I mean, a virus.
The Host definitely has political and social undertones. It's no coincidence that we open on the formaldehyde-pouring, referencing a real event from 2000, finally ending in prosecution of the American doctor in 2005. It's both funny and disturbing when photographers crowd around the Park family, including Hyun-seo's drunk uncle Nam-il (Park Hae-il) as they wail in grief, believing Hyun-seo is dead before receiving the phone call.
An urchin explain to his little brother that they are performing seo-ri, the right of the poor, not stealing food, that concept is later recalled by the monster's own actions and in the Park family itself. Even the composition of the shots in the film subtly points out how much concrete there is in Seoul, where the banks of the Han River are man-made and grey, where sky-scrapers emit their own cold light onto the city. The commentary, though, is never overbearing or overwhelming, despite the fact that the film climaxes during a political protest.
Bong knows how to use pauses and hold shots long enough to make us feel them – one camera move late in the film, a reveal after a long hold on the resourceful Hyun-seo's face during a dramatic escape attempt, made the whole audience gasp at the showing I was at. And remember, these are all East Coast cynics at an art-house theater (including myself). Even a slow-motion power shot of one of the characters at the end of the film, as they turn away from the action to stride dramatically toward the camera, is given a new spin because we know why they would walk away from the explosions and to whom they are going.
The Host is more tension than gore, more familial than ironic. It's funny where it needs to be, and knows how to create a sometimes bittersweet triumph out of sincere hopelessness. Looking back, I realize I didn't even comment on the excellent monster design and special effects. Possibly because they were organic in the film, almost unnoticable in their context. This is a monster movie with more monsters in it than just the mutant lizard/fish thing and, hopefully, it will get the audience it deserves in America.