With The Host, Bong Joon-Ho has incontrovertibly affirmed his unrivaled talent as a contemporary reinventor of the classic American genre film. He’s an innovative traditionalist, as evidenced first in 2001 by Memories of Murder, the best cop movie of at least the last decade, and now he has reworked the monster movie the same way with The Host, the best monster movie at least since Hollywood effectively stopped making them (we’ll ignore the Godzilla remake, for example) all those decades ago.
On its face, The Host is your basic environmental allegory: the abuse of nature, in this case pollution (by callous American scientists who dump a crate’s worth of “dirty” formaldehyde down the drain and into Korea’s Han River), leads to the creation of a “monster” who reeks its vengeance on humanity. (The film is heavily critical of America; Americans not only are responsible for the mutant legged killing fish that murders several Koreans, but the military’s dishonesty about it leads to deaths of many more Koreans by poisoning!)
Bong, as in Memories of Murder, plays the first half of the film as comedy, teasing out the implicit absurdity of the genre. Unlike many comedies of exaggeration, the fine cast, led by the marvelous Song Kang-Ho, don’t act as though aware of how hilarious they are, and thus allow for some genuinely funny moments.
But Bong carefully balances the comedy with action/horror, especially in the virtuosic sequence in which the monster first appears (worthy of Spielberg at his very best), and eventually the humor dissolves into pathos as characters die, Song’s daughter, Ko Ah-Sung, is abducted and her father and his siblings must face their essential impotence to act against massive, international government bureaucracy (expressed not only in the military occupation but in the labyrinthine sewer system.) The movie drags a bit in the second act, as the family gathers supplies and fruitlessly searches the sewers for the creature, but when Bong is on, as he is for example when the monster appears, he’s on, and for the bulk of the rest of the film he demonstrates his flair for weaving action, drama and comedy together, as they are often woven in real life: without any of the them ever ringing false. He even allows for a bittersweet ending that the likes of Spielberg would never have permitted, despite its (albeit circuitous) affirmation of the family unit.
Like many, if not most, movies coming out of Asia today, The Host seems packed with subtext directed at its native audiences that mostly goes over my head, such as a repeated criticism of the Korean economy: it’s mentioned more than once that Song’s brother, Park Hae-Il, is a college graduate but can’t a job, while everyone seen employed in the film has a low-paying, dead-end position, like Song and his father who own and operate a modest food stand.
But the anti-American subtext is easy to catch for any audience; as the Japanese monster movies of the mid-Twentieth Century were often about the atomic bomb and its effects, The Host could easily be read as, what else, an allegory for The War on Terror. When the American military uses violence, against a monster of its own creation, mind you, it’s mostly a lot of innocent civilians who are hurt in the process.