The Host is an energetic and captivating, sea beast-filled frolic through the often-kitschy genre of Korean science fiction. With innovative moments that hint at an emerging sense of greatness from the small country's National Cinema, The Host may just well be one of the best monster films in recent history.
Showcasing a surprisingly fluid mix of suspense, humour and visual effects, The Host tells the story of an atypical family's search for their daughter while running from government officials and a gargantuan sea monster. Although the premise seems hokey at first, The Host is still a riveting, bloody CG monster fest.
Originally billed as Gwoemul, the film's release follows up such masterpieces as 2003's Memories of Murder and is another indication of Korea's current film renaissance. The movie gets off to a dark start, laying out a perfect situation of government blunder and the dire consequences that result. Propaganda and the exploitation of common people remain trends throughout. Each of the central character's quirks is emphasized early and, although they're somewhat kitschy at times, they still effectively portray them as individuals, not just monster food.
The film immediately endears audiences to the ensemble, painting a picture of a grandfather who's children never really grew up, a drunken hot-headed idealist, a sensitive and talented sister, an ill-equipped single father who blames himself for the loss of his daughter and a surprisingly resourceful little girl. Each member of the family personifies a different, necessary aspect of one complete persona, and their inability to function without one another is made explicit through their relationships and the action.
Lighting elements flick the mood between sunny saturation and a dark, foreboding atmosphere with disheveled and displaced persons acting as set pieces. Fog machines and facemasks are used to a similar end, meshing a sense of sterility with complete filth. The clever dichotomy in both staging elements leaves the viewer slightly unsettled and likely not knowing why.
Writer/director Joon-ho Bong does a fantastic job of getting the characters to convey dire frustration throughout the film. A commentary on governmental control and censorship, the family constantly voices concerns that fall on patronizing, deaf ears and as a result, take matters into their own hands. Along with this is the portrayal of the state's ignorance about its own operations, as the government officials come off as mindless automatons controlled by the all-powerful and all-inconsiderate United States.
Since Godzilla, monster movies with a political subtext haven't really been an original idea. What sets The Host apart, however, is its skilful use of humour. Though much of the film concentrates on the family's quest to find their youngest, comedic interludes intersperse and showcase the characters' awkward interactions, lightening the mood and alleviating what might otherwise be a completely heart-wrenching and emotionally exhausting affair.
The Host is an innovative film and an unexpected favourite for action and non-action fans alike, unconventionally twisting monster movie tropes and making the audience actually care about the characters, rather than treating them as mutated-lizard fodder. Its cinematic elements convey not just a battle between man and monster but family and freedom.