At its simplest, 'The Host' is a creature feature about a giant killer tadpole. Though filmmaker Bong Joon-ho might swear up and down otherwise -- because, let's face it, killer tadpoles don't sound very menacing -- his monster slips into and out of the water with its bulbous body, long, dexterous tail and legs ready to run. It's a tadpole who drinks gas like it's Red Bull, and was bred out of the dangerous toxins poured into the Han River on the orders of an illogical military clean freak.
In fact, any casual commentary on the film makes it sound utterly ridiculous and perhaps even inconsequential, never standing up to the Frankensteins and creatures from the black lagoon. If anything, the Korean film seems like it should shoulder its lot in life alongside killer tomatoes. But there's a magic to 'The Host' and how it weaves in and out of heart and black humor, ridiculous loserdom and political commentary. How chilling scenes of bloody hands desperately trying to open a chained door are intermingled with our hero thinking that running through toxins will cleanse himself.
'The Host' might seem a little manic and disjointed, but it's got this irresistible fire that hugs the world of creature features and squeezes out a perfectly fresh hybrid.
It's a simple premise -- evil U.S. military type orders man to dump toxic chemicals down the drain, the poisons create a tadpole monster who slowly grows until he can pop out of the water and collect humans for his food pile. One slacker's smart daughter gets captured by the creature, and while she fights to stay alive, her ne'er-do-well family erratically try to save her.
In many ways, 'The Host' is like the 'Venture Bros.' of Korean horror. The Adult Swim cartoon thrusts the old-school 'Jonny Quest' framework into a limbo between imaginative glory and real-life clumsiness and boredom. Likewise, Bong takes all the old tropes we've seen time and time again and applies them to an everyday, loser-filled framework to give them fresh life. Though these (anti)heroes face the arrival of a threat, and must fight their way through extraordinary circumstances to reach their final goal -- a showdown against a seemingly unbeatable foe -- they're us. They're not the "us" of movies -- the so-called Joe Schmoe who turns from schlub to killer of evil in the span of 1.5 hours, the Alice who rips photos from her mirror and morphs into a seemingly unstoppable force against Freddy. Instead, they're the "us" of real life -- people who don't quite know how to proceed, and struggle as best they know.
Bong calls it his love of the "dysfunctional loser character," his adoration for those who aren't experts with relevant know-how, who come in at just the right moment. These are people who try as best they can, victims of those they seek help from just as much as victims of the monster terrorizing them. Nevertheless, Bong manages to give each of the (anti)heroes a sense of simple closure and realistic development -- a morsel of happiness for the viewer without creating a society of perfection-obsessed, never-satisfied folks. It's not about the guy getting the girl and living happily ever after. It's about reconciling the past, staying strong in death, becoming responsible without becoming a perfect, untouchable hero.
This is a world where I'd like to think Bruce Willis would die in the first act, his ass thoroughly kicked before the tad-beast chewed him up and regurgitated the bones. We don't see fleeting glimpses of the monster before the big reveal at the end, with lots of bellowing music and buff hunters finally finding and killing their prey. The thing jumps out of the water first-thing, seeing those people lounging by the side of the river as an all-you-can-eat buffet, and it's hard to imagine them as anything else when these crazy folks feed this large monster before it attacks them. Heroic team-ups to bring the beast down don't work. The military fail. The doctors are more interested in creepy theories and unnecessary surgery than in reality.
It's like Bong's (anti)heroes are a way to avoid all the overwrought epicness. Between news feeds and failure, even the crazier elements of the Han River massacre join into a whole that seems equally fictional as it does real, which makes every disparate part find the tendrils it needs join together and make the film work. Fear, laughter, smarts, drama -- all are necessary. One minute, we're struck by the heart-wrenching beauty of honorable protesters swallowed up by poisonous smoke, as if they're doomed subjects who will live on in photographic infamy. The next, we're laughing at a flailing fight, before one poorly thrown molotov failure leads to another's moment for real glory.
It's a see-saw that shows the many different ways horror films -- or any films for that matter -- can be made. It's homage without bland pastiche. Comedy without off-putting laziness. Drama without overwrought storylines. Commentary without condescension. And perfection in imperfection -- not flawless by any means, but enjoyable in a way that makes it "perfect" just as it is.
And for once, I must highly recommend the English-language track. It offers added hilarity on multiple viewings.
-Bong strove to break convention by revealing the monster first-thing. Did it leave him open for more in-depth storytelling, or lighten the impact?
-Does a character have to be extreme to carry a film? Though not action heroes, the Park family are pretty extreme in their "loser" quality. Would it had worked if they were more in the middle between the two extremes?
-Did the mix of genres and tones appeal to you, or find you wishing for more of any one aspect? Or, wishing for less of another?
-By the end of the film, we want to see the Parks succeed, but there's also a sense of tragedy in seeing this creature die. Should more films strive for morally ambiguous territory, or does that lessen the impact of the story?