‘The Host’ opens with a US military type browbeating a Korean serviceman into illegally dumping some chemicals into the Han River in Seoul. Cut to: two fisherman noticing a mutated aquatic life form. Cut to: someone committing suicide off a bridge over the Han, a hulking shape awaiting him under the churning surface of the dark water.
That’s all there is by way of prologue or provenance. Five minutes later, the beastie is on the rampage. Wonderfully-named director Joon-ho Bong pitches his first big set-piece in a fractured filmic middle ground between comedy and terror. The monster is part laughable, part grotesque. But it moves. Thundering out of the water, it charges along the riverbank; chaos ensues. When it dives back in, it takes with it a young girl. Her divided, dysfunctional family spend the rest of the film trying to get her back.
Sounds formulaic enough, but Bong takes the material, by degrees, into less expected territory. Farcical family squabbles are played out against a backdrop of military intervention, the monster’s “infected” victims herded brutally into quarantine. The government – its strings pulled by the US military – turn out to be as monstrous, and as threatening to the protagonists’ survival, as the beast itself. Perhaps more so.
The final stand-off against the monster comes after two hours of governmental deception, media hysteria and social betrayals on every level. The beast has become a metaphor for la bete humaine – the beast in man. The creature feature has become political.
Small quibbles: the film is a tad overlong; the effects in the explosive finale could have benefited from better CGI. But these are minor matters. Ultimately, ‘The Host’ is a damn good movie, playing fast and loose with genre conventions, pulling the rug gleefully out from under the audience as the broad humour of the first half morphs into political satire of the sharpest and darkest hue.