This summer's smartest, coolest and most exciting action movie isn't from Hollywood. It's titled The Host; it's from South Korea; and it's got enough suspense and thrills to banish whatever lingering aversion to subtitled films you may have.
Already Korea's highest-grossing film of all time, and a worldwide commercial and critical smash, The Host is well on its way to becoming a modern classic. It's got echoes of many monster movies before it, but there are more than enough clever updates to keep the genre alive and well for the 21st century.
The movie opens with a flashback to the year 2000. Inside a U.S. military base, an American officer bullies his Korean subordinate into disposing of expired formaldehyde by simply pouring it down the drain. Bottle after bottle goes into the sink, and an ominous cloud of noxious steam swirls through the air. The drain, of course, empties directly into the Han River, which flows right through the middle of Seoul.
Anyone who's seen Godzilla will be familiar with the setup: Man's disregard for nature eventually breeds dire consequences of the mutated and bloodthirsty variety. This time, though, writer and director Joon-ho Bong shifts the focus to chemicals and makes the carelessness specifically, distinctly American. Why not? It's a country led by a man famously unable to pronounce the word "nuclear," and part of the fun of monster movies has always been parsing the political metaphors, from Godzilla's warnings about nuclear fallout to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Communist paranoia.
But enough with the over-intellectualization. Flash forward to 2006 and slovenly, sweatpants-clad Gang-Du Park dozing on the job at his family's food shack, located in a park along the scenic banks of the Han. The movie does an excellent job introducing its key players and their back stories in a nuanced rush. There's Gang-du's father, exasperated by his lazy son's inattention to customer service. There's adolescent daughter Hyun-seo, the precocious delight at the family's center, whose mother has been absent for years. Hyun-seo has rushed from school to catch a telecast of her aunt, Hie-bong, competing in the country's archery semifinals.
Suddenly there is the monster, dangling by its tail from a bridge. Part tadpole, part alien, it drops into the river and swims toward the shore. A crowd gathers and pelts the creature with beer cans and garbage. A tentacle emerges, then disappears. It appears to swim away, a large dark shape moving through the water. The day is sunny and perfect, and the bystanders are bemused, curious, unafraid.
And then, utterly without warning, it is out of the river and upon them, slithering, galloping, devouring. In terms of monster introduction, the scene is one of the all-time greats--instead of a murky thing snatching people out of the night, we immediately get a good look at this creature in broad daylight, and somehow the effect of a well-lit rampage through an idyllic setting is far more horrifying than shadow and suggestion.
Gang-du rushes back to the shack to grab his daughter, and they join the fleeing crowd. In the confusion, he stumbles and loses hold of her hand, then grabs it again and continues running. But wait--he glances back and finds that he's got the wrong girl. His own daughter is a few yards back, picking herself up from the grass just in time for the monster to wrap her in its tail and plunge back into the river.
Of course, all of this is about a million times more exciting on screen than it is on paper. But The Host is such fantastic entertainment because it comes very close to achieving the miracle of perfect pacing. True, nothing else is as thrilling as the monster's first scene, but the movie zings off in a surprising direction as it begins to explore the Park family dynamic after Hyun-seo's presumed death. Each of the characters gets just enough dialogue to feel convincing--instead of attractive but utterly interchangeable horny teenagers, we get people who can actually be imagined to have identities and complex interactions. It's a neat trick that the movie lets us experience the monster's attack and its aftermath through the eyes of this fractured and compelling family, rather than telling the story from the perspective of embattled government agents or scientists or rogue ex-cops.
As if all this wasn't enough, the Parks--and everyone else who has been near the monster--are quarantined because the government suspects than the monster may also be the host of a contagious virus. And then Hyun-seo, still alive in the monster's lair in the city's labyrinthine sewage system, finds a cell phone in the pocket of one of the monster's other disgorged victims and calls her family. The chase is on.
After a certain point, The Host does sag a little under its own weight--there's the fraught family dynamic, the escape scenes, the chase scenes, the monster scenes, the virus outbreak and government containment and military-performing-medical-experiments-on-civilian scenes, and it's a lot to follow. But just when you think the movie is going to collapse into a confusing jumble, it instead streamlines itself into a climax that is in some ways familiar and conventional--hey, do you think Hie-bong's archery skills will come in handy?--but also a surprisingly emotional relief.