VOD film review: The Host (2006)
Ivan Radford | On 10, Feb 2020
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Byun Hee-Bong, Park Hae-il, Asung Ko
Watch The Host online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play / Sky Store
“The Han River is very broad. Let’s try to be broad-minded about this.” That’s a US doctor at the start of The Host, Bong Joon-ho’s marvellous monster movie that succeeds precisely because it’s able to be broad-minded. The breakout hit announced the filmmaker on an international stage, without once losing the director’s recognisable tone and wit.
Bong Joon-ho is known for slipping between genres smoothly and amusingly, from Okja to Parasite, and The Host is him at his most brazen and bold. Here, his monster movie is just that, wearing its genre credentials up front and proud, without side-stepping them into subtler messages and themes.
Those are present and correct, however, and the introduction makes it clear there’s a point behind the destruction: the monster in question is caused by the dumping of toxic chemicals in the Han River, at the order of Americans. Minutes later, we see a mutated lizard/fish/whale/thing waddle, swing, jump and swim its way out of the water and start to wreak havoc across Seoul.
Swept away by the monster is young Hyun-seo (Asung Ko), the daughter of Gang-du, a manchild who runs a riverside snack bar. He’s spurred into action to get her back, aided by his stern and stubborn father, Park Hee-bong (Byun Hee-Bong), his award-winning archer sister and his deceptively useful brother. Bong impressively manages to make sure each character gets a chance to make their mark, crafting an eccentric ensemble of oddballs who each have their strengths as well as many, many weaknesses.
The laughs primarily come from their interactions, which are regularly punctuated by the blunt interruptions of the monster. But the genre thrills are never diminished by Bong’s light touch, and underlying the offbeat rescue adventure is a growing sense of unease and unrest. That’s partly because of grumblings of misinformation from the authorities, keen to keep the population under control, and partly because of the creature itself. At once silly and supremely creepy, The Host unashamedly puts the monster in the middle of the frame, rather than hide it to build up to a reveal – testament to the film’s confidence and style that puts it closer to Jurassic Park than Jaws.
Just watching the beast potter about killing hundreds of people is scary enough, and Bong knows the horror that’s inherent in that immediate, matter-of-fact carnage. Even as he peppers the screen with incompetent victims and officials, the slapstick pacing doesn’t distract from the shock of seeing such a danger brashly exposed in plain sight. And that ability to juggle tones, moods and tensions is where The Host is a more complex beast than it might appear. Not because it’s a satire in disguise, but because it’s both that and a straight-forward B-movie. At once a big-budget monster flick and a political commentary, plus a family drama and a sci-fi comedy to boot, it’s an unpredictable ride that keeps you forever on your toes – a recipe for a film with broad appeal, even as it remains wonderfully, entertainingly unique.