The Host arrives in the U.S. on the kind of advance billing that greeted Asian genre features like the stripped-down horror movie Ringu, the ultraviolent reality-tv parody Battle Royale, and the intensely scripted double-crosses of Infernal Affairs. Those films maxed out geek buzz because they were sterling examples of something Hollywood rarely gets right — the raucous, galvanizing, and uncompromising genre movie. Where Hollywood genre pictures increasingly call attention to their own ridiculousness, somehow the best of their Asian counterparts have managed to keep an unrivalled air of seriousness about them, even when the concept is ridiculously outré: Fukasaku kept the schoolchildren’s deathmatch that was Battle Royale under control by shooting it just like a war movie, and by casting Takeshi Kitano, Japan’s ultimate black-comic performer, in an important supporting role. Scorsese updated Infernal Affairs to great effect partly by working with a William Monahan screenplay that smartly made the story even more hard-boiled, and the Hollywood fantasy film got a boost from the largely po-faced (and intermittently excellent) Lord of the Rings series. With King Kong, Peter Jackson even made a go at rescuing the Hollywood monster movie from the Godzilla slums. But his movie was bloated and overly cutesy and felt, ultimately, ponderous in a way you wouldn’t expect a giant-gorilla movie to be. (Perhaps all those Oscars put the wrong ideas in Jackson’s head.)
South Korea’s monster-movie juggernaut The Host, on the other hand, is a fairly delightful combination — dysfunctional-family comedy set against a Gojira-style monster movie about mutant Mother Nature run amuck. (An entertaining Hollywood equivalent might drop the Royal Tenenbaums or, better, the cast of Little Miss Sunshine into the middle of the next Aliens Vs. Predator slugfest.) The film’s opening salvo is a lovingly choreographed Jurassic Park-style attack by a sea monster living in Seoul’s polluted Han River. The beast — an intriguingly toothsome cross between a big fish and a giant lizard — snatches a schoolgirl from the shore and spirits her away to a hiding place in the sewer system. The rest of the film revolves around the attempts of family members to navigate bureaucratic red tape and outright obstruction in an attempt to rescue her.
The film’s first scene has a U.S.-scientist type instructing an underling to dump bottle after bottle of surplus chemicals into the river; the film’s ending features a TV broadcast in the background blaming confusion and incompetence on the part of the American government for the whole incident, although the truth is something more sinister. My wife guessed that the film’s title must refer to the monster’s intention of laying eggs, Alien-style, in the bodies of the living humans it collects underground, but that idea is never dramatized. Instead, a viewer can draw the conclusion that Korea itself is “the host,” and a disruptive American military and industrial presence the occupying organism.
The current mini-cycle of horror movies that take as their starting points the misadventures of careless Americans at large in the greater world is almost certainly an indication of unease and resentment over U.S. foreign policy — I’m thinking not just of this movie and Severance, both of which are set for U.S. release later this year by Magnolia Pictures, but of the more mean-spirited variants being created in Hollywood itself, like Hostel and Turistas, where dumb and horny American kids come face to face with international ill will. (And surely the prevalence of ever-nastier mainstream horror pictures, along with the enduring popularity of the incredibly violent and highly entertaining 24, has something to do with the constant stream of bad news out of Iraq.) It’s part of The Host‘s charm that it so breezily blames the whole mess on Western interventionism and then spends the bulk of its narrative looking at its band of misfit characters on a low-key, personal level rather than continually attempting to ratchet up the action or deepen the political subtext. (The film’s second half features some protests that are probably meant to reflect real political demonstrations in South Korea — I’m not sure whether they specifically reference sentiment against the continued U.S. presence there, but it would fit the general thrust of the story.)
Action hounds may actually be disappointed at how few rollicking set pieces are on offer. But the makers of The Host remember some things too many of their Hollywood counterparts have forgotten — story, character, situation. It’s not that The Host is a particularly sensitive character study, but it establishes the personalities of its misfit players and sticks with them. That’s why, when they start to drop off one by one, you the viewer are moved to give a shit about their death. Maybe you’ll miss them when they’re gone from the narrative. And it’s that rooting interest and sense of actual peril, more even than the unusually imaginative rendering of a lithe, myth-making sea monster arrived in the present day, that places The Host head and shoulders above its SF/action competition in the states. It’s not a great or perfect movie. But it’s full of heart and it has a brain — and it’s a lot of fun.