A slickly made B-movie, but a B-movie nonetheless, “The Host” is an often surprising Hollywood-like monster movie from loved Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho. Armed with professional Kiwi, American, Australian & FX teams handling the impressive creature effects, the film manages to not only deliver the requisite big action and chills throughout much of its runtime (it is unafraid to show off its monster quite often, and in full view) but also throws in pointed political commentary, family drama and at times absurdist Almodovar-type humour.
Already being overhyped by the genre press, the truth is that “The Host” is a far from perfect film. Too long by nearly half an hour, much of the middle of the film is bogged down in tedious and far from compelling family drama. Its political commentary against both American imperialism and Korea’s own political issues is refreshingly sharp and frequent but in most cases only bites at the obvious soft bulges – never smart or pointed enough to go for the jugular.
Yet when it concentrates on its more tangible filmmaking concerns, the film soars beautifully. After a cheesy prologue explaining the creature’s origin (expired formaldehyde replacing nuclear testing as a mutation factor), the opening sets up the various characters in charming and quirky fashion before kicking into gear with the monster attacking everything in its path along a waterfront park.
The lengthy action sequence is the film’s highlight – a brilliant conveyance of mass panic meets FX thrills that tops most of the action sequences you’d find in your average Hollywood summer blockbuster. It’s so good that sadly the rest of the film can’t compete with it for sheer suspense or visual pazzaz. Often at moments throughout the remaining 90 minutes there is excitement, tension or twisted surprise that reach the same heights – but they’re never sustained anywhere near as long.
When it comes to its monster though the film never cuts corners. There’s little to no exposition about its origins, no attempt to humanise it – it is simply an unrelenting force of death and is treated as such throughout. Nor is there any holding back – the film plays it just right – showing it enough to feel you’ve gotten your money’s worth but not overdoing it and letting the human characters take front and center for the most part.
Not working as well is the whole ‘virus’ subplot. The government blasts out propaganda that the beast is the carrier of a deadly pathogen as an excuse to round up and control information. The virus angle seems horribly trite (shades of woeful “Resident Evil” sequels) and is never used to good effect until its revealed to be the macguffin it truly is in the third act.
In practical terms though the ‘virus’ gives the filmmakers the excuse to explore some political angles – sometimes hitting just right (after the panic with dozens dead the news only reports on the sole non-Korean involved), at others tettering on the verge of clumsy anti-nationalism. A more subtle yet more pointed approach here would’ve yielded far better results, but people all across the globe will understand and engage with the film’s attacks at Government misinformation and coverups.
Also both a help and a hindrance is the somewhat bumbling family. The assorted cast all do fine with the material – the regretful father, athletic sister and trapped young girl in particular faring the best. Yet the middle 45 minutes of the film are dragged down by each person wallowing in their personal issues whilst the group all go on a rag-tag search for their missing daughter. It’s all resolved well and capped by a great second act twist, but it’s just way too drawn out.
Still what’s here works more than it doesn’t. Seemingly useless tangents, like one girl’s adoration for her professional archery athlete sister, pays off nicely. A post-attack display of family grief at a wake turns from tragic to curiously funny in the space of a few seconds. Though little time is spent in the creature’s lair itself, the young girl has one nail-biting attempted escape sequence.
The mood shifts wildly between comedy, horror, serious drama, and action – but Bong always seems in control and by the end leaves one feeling satisfied (though not overstuffed) with the results as it’s both exciting and ballsy. Even our protagonists have an endearing everydayness about them which makes them easy to root for. In spite of its assorted lumpy bits, this is a far more successful monster movie than any creature feature Hollywood has churned out in a LONG time.