The Host (2006), Bong Joon-ho’s South Korean monster movie hit, is neither a parody, subversion, or revision of the often campy horror movie genre. It stirs a stew of genre conventions, from political commentary to dysfunctional family satire to earnest emotional pathos, into an often thrilling monster movie as indebted to the B-movies of seventies American drive-ins as it is to Japan’s Godzilla-spawned industry.
The host of the title is a mutant spawned in an obligatory eco-disaster/science mishap in Seoul’s Han River, inspired a real life scandal that stoked anti-American protests in 2000. Jump ahead a few years and an amphibious squid monkey the size of a Humvee slurps down a bridge piling, swings under the braces like a Cthulu Tarzan, and gallops through a riverside park with the thundering charge of a rhino with writhing tentacles, gobbling citizens and snatching up a schoolgirl for a later snack.
Bong maintains a tricky balance of absurdity and horror in the confusion of the state of emergency, lorded over by arrogant Americans and mismanaged by incompetent South Korean soldiers and clueless civil servants. It momentarily tips into slapstick as the girl’s sleepy, slovenly mutt of a single dad (Song Kang-ho of Thirst and Snowpiercer) and his barely functional family break quarantine and go rogue into the sewers to save the girl. Doona Bae (of Cloud Atlas and Sense8) is the girl’s mopey aunt, an archery champion with performance anxiety who picks up the bow for the half-baked rescue mission.
The visual effects are more than adequate by American standards (save for an unfortunately soggy fire effect) but the striking design of the creature—part Alien, part insect, part mollusk, all icky on the move—and the magnificent way it moves brings it to life. The sudden turns of temperament might feel odd at first but it is also refreshing in a film that is full of minor surprises, squirming in unexpected directions without ever leaving the conventions behind.
In Korean with English subtitles.