It’s hard to come across a decent monster movie these days that isn’t riddled with cliches. I can’t recall a single monster movie from the past decade – well, aside from Jurassic Park –that succeeded in thoroughly thrilling and satisfying me. I thought Cloverfield managed to do that to some extent but its technical wizardry was what impressed me more than anything else. There were no sympathetic characters, unlike in Jurassic Park.
Also, I quite liked the original 1954 Godzilla. I thought its 1998 remake was awful and the 2014 version passable, with the exception of one sequence that stood out – the fight between Godzilla and the other monster (forgot its name). But then again, there was the problem of the unrelatable characters. So, when I sat down to watch visionary South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, I expected it to be just another typical monster movie, but I was totally surprised. It was unlike any monster movie I’ve seen before.
What makes it different from the rest is that it cannot be confined to one genre; it’s a mishmash of several genres: family drama, political satire, horror, comedy etc. The origin of the creature is similar to Godzilla’s. It resides underwater and is the result of a horrible mutation caused by harmful chemicals that were poured into a river many years ago. It isn’t as tall as the Empire State building – something doesn’t have to be that tall to be terrifying – but evokes dread by being discreet and unpredictable. And Joon-ho doesn’t wait till the last minute to reveal it.
Resembling a giant fish with legs, a long tail, and a truly grotesque face, its appearance sparks mass hysteria and pandemonium when it emerges out of the Han River and goes after the people occupying the land next to it. Unlike the other movie monsters we have seen so far, it doesn’t travel to other areas in the city, destroy buildings and create more panic. It just sticks close to its home and operates from there. The government makes up a story: the creature is host to a lethal “virus” and orders the entire city to be quarantined.
Instead of assembling a group of people from different parts of the city, Joon-ho keeps the action revolving around the members of one particular family: Song Kang-ho (of Memories of Murder fame) plays the slow-witted father of a young girl called Hyun-seo. They live with their father Hee-bong who owns a food stall next to the river. When Hyun-seo is snatched by the creature, these two men, along with her uncle and aunt, go looking for her. On the way, they run into a couple of unexpected hurdles which make things more and more complex.
As in Joon-ho’s previous film Memories of Murder, there a good dose of humor in the film and sometimes you find them amidst the darkest of situations and you might feel guilty about laughing a little. There is one scene in which a memorial being conducted for some of the victims of the attack turns absurd and quite funny and it got a couple of chuckles out of me. I was asking myself, “Wait a minute. Am I supposed to laugh at this?” But that’s Bong Joon-ho for you.