If you’re like me, you believe that there aren’t nearly enough monster movies anymore and I don’t mean metaphorical representations of humans who do bad things, like zombies and Hannibal Lector. I mean massive creatures that come from the depths of the ocean or the furthest reaches of space to rain destruction on an unsuspecting human kind and maybe even eat a few. In the fine tradition of Asian monster movies about the exaggerated side effects that come when mankind musses with nature, is The Host; a film worthy of the mantle of Godzilla or Rodan.
The Host is about the Park family, who own a little concession stand near the Han River in Seoul, South Korea. A quiet day along the river side becomes one of horror and torment when a large, mutant, fish-like lizard attacks the people on shore and the youngest of the Park’s, a little middle-schooler named Hyun-seo, is taken by the creature as a McNugget to be consumed later. The Parks don’t know that though, and they are taken to a shelter and put under observation by military scientists who think that the creature exposed anyone that came into contact with it with a virus. A mysterious phone call tells the family that Hyun-seo is alive, so they escape to find her before the US military releases potent “Agent Yellow” chemical to take care of the creature once and for all.
The whole premise of the film is based on an actual, factual incident in 2000 when a civilian stationed on a US military base in Seoul ordered his Korean subordinate to dump several bottles of formaldehyde down the drain, flying in the face of standard safety procedures. The entire scene is acted out in a prologue at the start of the film and is, in fact, the implied origin of the creature. So comparisons to Godzilla aren’t so crazy as they might seem. For if Godzilla is the monstrous embodiment of the nuclear age, then the Host is his bio-warfare equivalent.
Other clear allegories in the film relate to pan-Asia fears of pandemics like SARS and bird flu. Scenes of military officials taking extraordinary precaution to quarantine people while a thick fog of chemicals hangs over the Han River to kill any trace of disease hit all the right notes. The biohazard scare card is a good one to play, because like radiation and nuclear fallout 40 years ago, the average person doesn’t have a real grasp of the dangers and effects, just our suppositions and imaginations. The Host manipulates this perfectly, like any good scare picture it prays on preconceived fears to get the right amount of jolt out of the audience.
Not that there isn’t also humour in the film. The Park family is as dysfunctional as they come and director Joon-ho Bong beautiful juxtaposes the fact that the little girl is keeping a cooler head while trapped in the deep dark sewer then her family is on the surface as they try to find her. The funny thing about the Host, and I’m not sure if it’s Korean humour, is that you’re sometimes not sure if you should laugh or not. There’s a scene where the Parks think that Hyun-seo is dead and they start crying and balling and wailing and you’re thinking, this is way too over the top to be taken serious. And slowly you start to let yourself laugh and the more you laugh the more ridiculous the outburst on screen becomes.