Directed by Bong Joon-ho. 2006.

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Korea’s top-grossing film of all time The Host (the original Korean title is "Creature") is a monster movie with a difference. Seen by ten million people during the first three weeks of its Korean release, the film directed by Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder), combines genre-typical special effects with family drama, comedy, and political satire. Heroism in the film belongs not to a super hero but to a slightly dysfunctional working class family that bands together when it counts to battle a mutant tadpole that has abducted a member of the family. The film has a pricey $10 million US price tag but made record sales at Cannes and has multiple studios bidding for the remake rights. 

Set in Seoul, the Park family operates a snack food stand near the Han River selling squid, candy and beer to picnickers at the beach. Slow-witted Kang-Du (Kang-ho Song) works the counter when he's not sleeping or irritating his father Hie-bong (Byun Hie-bong). He is devoted to his teenage daughter Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko) and is saving up coins to buy her a new cell phone. The Park family also includes his sister Nam-ju (Bae Doo-na), a world-class archer, and his brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il) who is well educated but hasn't found a job and doesn't seem to be looking very hard.  

The fun starts when a US Army scientist orders his Korean assistant to pour gallons of deadly formaldehyde down the drain and into the Han River. A few years later, fishermen see an odd-looking tadpole but let it go on its way. Big mistake. Enhanced by special effects developed by a San Francisco outfit, The Orphanage FX house, the cute little tadpole soon becomes a monster fish the size of a truck that threatens the community. Spoiling a perfectly good summer afternoon, it comes out of the river to capture and kill hordes of innocent bystanders. The creature has no designs for world conquest. It is just hungry and eats whatever or whoever is available for lunch. When the monster captures Kang-du's daughter Hyun-seo, the family decides that they alone can save her. 

Their rescue attempt is complicated, however, by the fact that the government seeks to contain a deadly virus that is supposedly arising from contact with the monster and snatches Kang-du to put him through some gruesome-looking tests. Joon-ho uses this scenario to take some digs at authority: the Korean government's inappropriate response, the servile media, and the country's lack of ability to provide basic needs for its citizens. Not to be spared is the American government which attempts to destroy the monster that they created by their military presence, by drowning the area in a chemical called Agent Yellow (suggesting Agent Orange used in the Vietnam War). 

There are plenty of thrills and scary moments as the family must extricate itself from the oppressive government agents and zero in on the location where Hyun-seo is being held. Some of the best scenes are depictions of Hyun-seo's escape attempts from a sewer beneath a bridge with a young orphan. One might imagine different subtexts to explain the film: fear of the monster that lies within us, the dangers of pollution, our inherent distrust of government, a Western-type arrogance that would rather create lies about a nonexistent virus than face up to reality. Whatever one you decide on will work. The bottom line, however, is that The Host is a scary monster movie that is well crafted and highly entertaining and has a compelling human factor that is both comic and tragic.  


Howard Schumann

Seen at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) 2006.
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