Breaking all box-office records in Korea's history, The Host is a movie about a mutant that's a bit of a mutation itself; with unflappable confidence, director Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder) grafts droll humor and sly political commentary onto the DNA of a classic Hollywood creature feature. The result strikes a perfect balance between broad social satire, comedy, and honest-to-god horror thrills. In case we had forgotten, Bong Joon-ho proves that it's possible to make CGI extravaganzas that entertain without insulting an audience's intelligence.
Thanks to Americans who blithely pollute the Han river, a slippery, amphibious monster with fearsome mandibles, a prehensile tail, and an endless supply of surprise moves haunts the sewers of Seoul. The creature is designed by Weta, the New Zealand special effects shop responsible for The Lord of the Rings, but the heroes are 100% Korean. When the monster abducts adorable Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung), the rest of her family has to get past untrustworthy government agencies and backstabbing salarymen to find and save her: her ramen-vendor father (Song Kang-ho) and grandfather (Byeon Hie-bong), drunken Uncle (Park Hae-il), and her aunt, a perennially losing archer (Bae Du-na.) Too bad all of them are prone to screwing up just when it matters most.
Shot as beautifully as any art-house film but paced like a blockbuster, The Host manages to satisfy (almost) all of our genre expectations while curious details give the characters life above and beyond the necessities of mutant fodder. Our hero has coins stuck to his face when we first meet him, disposable fishermen worry about their daughters' favorite cups, and lazy-eyed scientists replay the finale of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as farce.
In Bong's hands, stock scenes like the character-building moments of respite between attacks turn into little gems of genuine sadness, and there are a number of well-placed red herrings (including the film's American title) that keep the familiar surprising. These personal touches betray the presence of a genuine auteur, and Bong's political sensibility also shines through, without detracting from the entertainment. The biohazard origin of the monster allows for swipes at SARS hysteria and American hubris--and where have you ever seen such an enthusiastic celebration of the molotov cocktail?