In recent years, it has become difficult to avoid Asian horror films. Once the preserve of Asiaphiles, Japanese and more recently South Korean horror films have swept across the globe like a plague of locusts, their cultish success prompting Hollywood to create remakes aimed at a more mainstream audience. However, while the icy reception accorded Takashi Shimizu's The Grudge 2 (2006) might well constitute the corpulent soprano for Asian-inspired ghost stories, Joon-ho Bong's The Host proves that there is much more to the Southeast Asian horror scene.
Set on and around Seoul's Han River, the film does not waste much time on prologue or tension-building glimpses of the monster. Instead, the creature first appears hanging from a bridge in full view before exploding into life and rampaging through a park, gulping down sunbathers, tossing people into the air, and tipping over caravans before grabbing a little girl and gracefully leaping back into the river. This beautifully orchestrated chaos is followed by a scene at a memorial service, when the little girl's uncommunicative family allow their grief to build into a hysterical fistfight as grandfather, father, uncle, and aunt writhe around on the floor in front of the press. These two unusual and disconcerting scenes set the tone for the film: rather than being a traditional monster-hunt action-horror flick, The Host focuses firmly on the repercussions of what happens during the film's opening and what the creature's presence in the Han River means for not just the people of Seoul but also the Park family.
The idea of a monster movie that is not solely about battling the creature but also concerns itself with some wider ideological battle symbolized by the monster is not a recent one. Aside from the sadly overlooked Larry Cohen classic Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), which shares The Host's focus on characters rather than action, there's the godfather of Japanese monster films, Gojira (a.k.a. Godzilla; 1954). Given The Host's prologue, its comparison to the Godzilla films is understandable, for while Godzilla is famously a manifestation of Japan's trauma at being nuked during the Second World War, this film's prologue draws attention to the American military's illegally dumping chemicals into the Han River in 2000. However, unlike many monster-film directors, Bong refuses to tie himself down to one particular semiotic narrative. In fact, the film's focus on the lives of the Parks means that the monster comes to represent all their problems, from lack of communication (as represented by a string of failing cell phones) to their authoritarian and unsympathetic government. In one particularly harrowing scene, the creature's touch represents mental and physical illness as the lead character alternately pleads with and threatens doctors while they prepare to drill a hole in his skull to find a virus they know for a fact does not exist.
The film's focus on the lives and problems of its characters gives it the sedate and contemplative pace of a drama rather than the relentless ebb and flow of tension normally associated with the horror and action genres. Nevertheless, this does not mean that The Host is a navel-gazing character study. When it shifts into higher gear or decides to pile on the tension, Bong's shot selection and Hyung-ku Kim's beautiful cinematography combine with high-end special effects and great action directing to produce scenes that are not only exciting and visually impressive but also emotionally resonant. Particularly worthy of note is the final battle against the monster, when the family's problems suddenly become their strengths. Indeed, the uncle whose student activism has long prevented his finding a job puts those years making Molotov cocktails to good use; the aunt whose refusal to release her arrow cost her an archery gold medal learns the value of waiting for the right moment; and the father? Well, he just stands still. Shot between the Han River and an overpass, the final showdown is a misty nightmare of fire and blood. The unreal setting strangely fits the symbolic nature of the battle.
The Host is that rarest and most precious of genre films, one that is not only excellent by the standards of genre but also intelligent, challenging, and affecting when considered as a nongenre piece of cinema. However, this does not mean that it is beyond reproach.
First, at nearly two hours, it is a touch too long and is decidedly flabby towards the end. Critics at the Cannes Film Festival raised this point, and while the movie clearly was not taken back into the editing suite before its European release, the later US release date suggests the version for that market might well be tighter.
Second, despite having tackled only personal dramas so far, Bong seems more at ease dealing with political matters than character arcs. Indeed, while the characterization in The Host is beyond reproach, its director seems to struggle in taking his characters from one emotional place to another at the end of the film. The lack of clear trajectories is especially unfortunate since the film focuses so closely on the characters in the first place, which means it is effectively structured around plot arcs that simply are not there. With such attention directed to the emotional and psychological changes in the Park family, it is frustrating to find those arcs drawn in broad strokes, without any real bite or substance to them. All of which is something of a tease when you consider the slightly overlong running time. However, this is a minor quibble given that The Host has enough meat on its bones to satisfy even the most demanding of narrative carnivores.
Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic. Currently teaching after conducting research in fields as diverse as biological warfare and the epistemology of metaphysics, he writes articles and reviews, which are collected on his blog, SF Diplomat, and chairs the world's first child-free political group, Kidding Aside—the British Childfree Association.