To craft an effective horror comedy is a difficult enough task in its own right; add some heartfelt family drama, poetic political commentary, and a giant formaldehyde monster into the mix, and you've got a serious challenge on your hands. While all signs indicate that a big-budget genre-bender such as Bong Joon-ho's The Host should well buckle under the weight of its own ambition, the filmmaker who explored Korea's first-ever serial-killer case in the stunning Memories of Murder creates a stunning creature feature that is every bit as thrilling, moving, and darkly humorous as that earlier effort. A film that shares strong parallels with the original Japanese Godzilla, The Host opens with a recreation of an actual military transgression that took place on an American military base in Seoul in February 2000. Ordered by a high-ranking American military official to directly violate accepted procedures for chemical disposal by dumping gallons upon gallons of expired formaldehyde into a drain leading to the Han River, a low-ranking Korean soldier reluctantly carries out his duties under visible duress. While it may not have the visceral impact of the hydrogen bomb blast responsible for spawning Godzilla, the reckless polluting of the planet as presented illustrates precisely how humankind has failed to learn from its past mistakes while simultaneously highlighting increased international concern over military arrogance. Of course, it goes without saying that the illicit chemical dump has some particularly troubling consequences in the film, and this is where Bong's talents as a filmmaker truly begin to shine.
When we first meet the Park family, they come off as a textbook study in modern dysfunction; immediately after precocious schoolgirl Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung) complains that her uncle has shown up in her classroom reeking of alcohol, her developmentally stunted father responds by plopping her down in front of the television and slapping a cold beer in her hand for dinner. Not only is Hyun-seo's bumbling man-child of a father an entirely ill-suited candidate for parenthood and her uncle a hopeless lush, but her aunt is a self-flagellating overachiever who seems hell-bent on sabotaging a potentially successful sporting career. The only member of the family who seems to have his head screwed on straight is Hyun-seo's put-upon grandfather, but he's too busy running the family food stand to serve as an effective (grand)father figure to the young girl. When a giant rampaging beast comes blasting up from the Han and snatches up little Hyun-seo, Bong goes over the top to portray the family's desperate struggle to avert military quarantine for a purported monster-borne virus and rescue the young girl with a grace generally not afforded to the typical monster flick. The thoughtfully written characters are exceptionally well-realized by a talented cast, the pacing is unique and distinctive, and the highly innovative twists are both thrilling and shattering. Much credit for the film's distinctive tone goes to composer Lee Byung-woo, whose classy and memorable score helps the film transcend its slimy mutant-river-monster origins and elevate it to a new and emotionally resonant level. The final showdown between family and beast is staged with a genuine elegance. Despite the fact that some of The Host's humor and cultural commentary may be lost on foreign viewers, the film still stands as an impressive blend of drama, action, and humor that never ceased to be entertaining, and is likely to stick with the viewer much longer than your run-of-the-mill monster flick.