In his refusal to stick any one genre, Joon-ho Bong creates one of the most entertaining monster films in recent history.
A lot of films in the kaiju genre follow a very similar pattern: Initial monster attack, establish human characters, glimpse the monster for a while, draw out political/social issues (or the boring human love story or whatever plot you have), final big reveal of the monster. The Host is kind of like that, except for everything regarding the monster. Director Joon-ho Bong made his name in Korean cinema three years prior with the film Memories of Murder, a crime thriller about South Korea’s first serial murder in history. What made it stand out – and a box office smash – was its ability to never feel too confined to one genre, something Bong took over to the Host.
The creature in the film is seen almost immediately. The film doesn’t waste time with glimpses and a third act reveal, it shows us the monster almost right away, and in turn lets the filmmaker craft the film in a different mould to what we’re used to. Godzilla levels buildings. The kraken stalks the seas. The Host is about the size of a bus and isn’t even particularly fast. But this scaling down of size is only the first part of the film’s attempt to make itself small-scale and relatable. Once the monster shows itself and creates all the necessary havoc, it takes a back seat to the ongoing human drama.
Like some of the more solid Godzilla films, The Host decides to spend most of its running time with its human characters – an important task not only for the kaiju genre, but for horror as a whole. Being able to connect to your main characters is key, otherwise their struggles, especially when dealing with out-of-the-norm experiences like monsters, ghosts or aliens, become meaningless. Bong does this quickly and efficiently, setting Kang-ho Song up as the reluctant hero (which is arguably his default position in a film anyway), and his family as realistic, fleshed out characters.
Kang-ho Song’s Park Gang-du is set up as asimple man with simple goals. He runs a small snack shop by the banks of the Han River with his father Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong), and looks after his young daughter Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung). His dedication to his job and his family sums up his character neatly in the first few minutes and the result is a monster film whose central dramatic core is as an ensemble comedy-drama about a dysfunctional family working through its problems in the midst of a monster attack.
Their struggles are familiar because they’re not cops, or heroes or scientists; they’re people who have been under the thumb of whatever life throws at them: bosses, corporations, governments. Gang-du and his family are so used to being ignored by the people who are supposedly there to help that when the government “helps” its people by putting them in quarantine, it’s just another day, another instance when the family has to get by on its own means. Monsters, councils – there’s little difference for them.
Not to say that the Host doesn’t embrace its cheesiness; the film knows it’s a comedy monster film and comes with all the bells and whistles you expect from the genre. It’s made to be a mainstream film, and “run away from something trying to eat you” as a concept transcends language to be accessible to foreign markets. But it’s shot from a distinctly human perspective – tight angles at eye level that help build familiarity and tension. The scenes with the monster are fun, and because the monster isn’t too big and unstoppable, it is more exciting than anything you’ll see in the big, epic kaiju films.
Verdict: In the end, The Host fuses action, comedy, horror with a pinch of satire and comes out successful, memorable and infinitely fun.