The comparison has been made in previous circles, but it warrants rementioning: had 2006's "Little Miss Sunshine
" relocated to South Korea and tossed a carnivorous monster into the mix, it might have turned out a lot like "The Host." Reportedly the top-grossing film in Korean history, this unorthodox creature feature is not exactly of a Western mentalitythe villain is shown in full view in the first fifteen minutes; the characters and their familial relationship take precedence over blood and violence; the downbeat ending serves as a cutting comment on the deterioration of trust between the common public and the political governmentbut it is a breath of fresh air within a genre that has gotten awfully stale in recent years. Alas, the one important aspect that is sacrificed as a result of this refocus is the scare quotient, which disappears after the first act. At times it seems as if writer-director Joon ho-Bong and co-screenwriters Chul-hyun Baek and Jun-won Ha are so intent on making a comical and tender slice-of-life that they overlook generating suspense.
At the start of "The Host," the tossing-out of harmful chemicals into the water supply leads to the birth of a giant sea creaturea cross between a fish, a lizard and a circus acrobatthat resides in Seoul's Han River. When the yet-to-be-identified organism shows up on dry land long enough to terrorize the locals and snatch up precocious 13-year-old Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko), it is up to the rest of the teen's dysfunctional familyloving grandpa Hie-bong (Hie-bong Byeon), slacker father Gang-Du (Kang-ho Song), college grad uncle Nam-il (Hae-il Park) and professional archer aunt Nam-Joo (Du-na Bae)to bring their little girl home, dead or alive. In order to do this, though, they must evade the clutches of the National Guard and medical personnel, who believe they may be infected with a virus, and figure out which sewer in the city Hyun-seo is trapped in before she becomes the monster's next meal.
For the first thirty minutes, "The Host" is dazzling in a way few motion pictures of its kind have achieved since 1993's "Jurassic Park." Indeed, the initial setup of the premise plays with a tried-and-true archetypethat of the spilling of dangerous chemicals by way of a tyrannical Americanbefore wasting no time in getting to a tour de force
setpiece in which the creature emerges from the water and brutally attacks without hesitation. This sequence is astoundingthink 2005's "War of the Worlds
," but with a slimy monster instead of invading alien tripodsand all the more terrifying because of how blunt and straightforward and eerily plausible it comes off. The original creature design and slick visual effects, the latter good enough to compete with its U.S. blockbuster counterparts, aid immeasurably in depicting an unimaginable situation in realistic terms. As for the character-centric script, it nicely and surprisingly balances tragedy with offbeat humor; when the family's grief over the loss of Hyun-seo leads to the whole lot of them sprawled out on the floor and writhing in clumsy hysteria, it is a moment alternately poignant and hilarious.
After this first act, "The Host" slows down its momentum and never again reaches the deliciously unnerving heights of that first attack scene. As the determined family goes on the run from authorities, hitting the road in a government van and desperate to locate the endangered Hyun-seo, the film drags a bit as the horror elements take a back-trunk seat to the family's bickering and a thankless virus subplot that could have been scrapped altogether. Quality time spent getting to know the related clan is useful because whatever happens to them means more to the viewer, but it still is detrimental to the outcome. The startling unveiling of the creature right from the get-go makes for an attention-grabber, but by the climax the mystery of this chemically-created being has evaporated and the sight of it is no more scary than a gnarling poodle. Nonetheless, the film retains a quirky charm that cannot be discounted.
Likeably acted and a step or two above the tired horror/sci-fi conventions most readily followed in North America, "The Host" is recommended not just for what it achieves, but for what it attempts to. When the movie works, it really cooks with a taut "Alien" vibe. When it occasionally loses its way or stumbles, as in the jumbled climax and uninteresting viral side story, at least director Joon ho-Bong can be applauded for his courage to look outside of the box and give his film its own individuality. Is "The Host" one of the greatest monster movies ever made, as some critics have benevolently stated? Not by a long shot, but it is visually stylish and well-crafted in its own right.