Over the years, Asian monster and horror films have found an audience in America. From those badly dubbed Godzilla sequels of the '60s and '70s to recent shockers such as The Ring (a remake of the Japanese hit Ringu), they have a way of developing cult status here in the States. The latest creature feature attempting to do that is The Host. But it's not dubbed or remade. This is a South Korean subtitled export that wowed critics at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival with slick monster effects by Weta Digital (The Lord of the Rings, King Kong), a character-driven plot and plenty of sociopolitical subtext.
Titled Gwoemul in Korean, the movie centers on the Park family, owners of a humble food stand nestled in a park beside Seoul's Han River. Grandpa keeps the business running with the "help" of his sleepy, irresponsible son Kang-du, a slacker who hasn't been much of a father to his 13-year-old daughter, Hyun-seo. Kang-du's ne'er-do-well brother, Nam-il, is an unemployed university grad with a drinking problem. Their sister, Nam-joo, is an Olympic archer who can't do better than a bronze medal because she freezes under pressure. In other words, these three siblings need a shot at redemption. They get their chance when, six years after the U.S. Army emptied toxic chemicals into the Han River, a huge beast goes on a rampage and makes off with young Hyun-seo.
The agile, iguana-like creature snatches, swats and crushes its prey with imposing feet and a long, prehensile tail. When it opens the fleshy folds guarding its Tremors-esque maw, a probing tongue slithers from between rows of menacing teeth. But that mutant menace isn't the only adversary. The Park clan must also escape quarantine by dubious doctors and elude conspiratorial government agents in order to find Hyun-seo, whose desperate cell phone call lets her family know she's still alive. Can they navigate the maze-like Seoul sewer system and rescue her from the monster's lair before it's too late?
The Parks think nothing of endangering themselves in their quest to find Hyun-seo. In a perilous moment, Grandpa urges his children to find safety and wants to tangle with the creature alone. When a small boy ends up sharing Hyun-seo's concrete prison, she bravely cares for the child with a selfless, maternal resolve—actions that seem all the more poignant since she had no one to model that behavior for her (mom abandoned her and Kang-du as soon as she was born). Kang-du eventually adopts the orphaned boy himself. During the initial rampage in the park, Kang-du and a young American don't flee the beast, but heroically team up to try to rescue people.
Tired of hearing Nam-il and Nam-joo run down their brother and blame him for Hyun-seo's predicament, Grandpa comes to Kang-du's defense, calls him smart and accepts personal responsibility for some of the young man's deficiencies. He also empathizes with his son—imagining the heartbreak of a parent who has just lost a child—and scolds the thoughtless sibs for being unkind. Their quest reveals the strength and resolve of family, as well as the value of a single life. Those who survive do achieve a certain personal redemption.
Despite a lot of creature violence, the carnage isn't unduly explicit, and much is left to the imagination. (By way of comparison, it's probably just a tad stronger than Jurassic Park.) Specifically, the monster grabs a girl by the head and drags her off. It also traps people in a trailer and, judging from their screams and traces of blood, munches a few. The tentacle-like tail hurls victims into the river or slams them on the ground. Elsewhere, legs and other body parts protrude from the beast's mouth. A U.S. serviceman gets stepped on. After a man leaps to his death from a bridge, a news anchor reports that only half of his body was found.
The Parks acquire guns, and shoot at the monster. Nam-joo fires arrows at it, getting tossed aside violently at one point. Nam-il unleashes a barrage of Molotov cocktails, and the monster catches fire. It also gets impaled on a metal pole. Two young brothers are chased and (presumably) attacked, and one dies. A few jump scenes find the creature popping into frame. It swoops down to grab unsuspecting men. It also gulps down nondescript victims and, at one point, vomits out scores of human bones.
Additionally, angry siblings fight, hitting and kicking each other. Grandpa slaps his sons in frustration. They all scuffle with police and other authorities who are trying to detain them. A vagrant breaks a bottle over a guy's head. Kang-du is abused by physicians eager to extract tissue samples, and others wanting to study his brain. He grabs a woman as a hostage and threatens to expose his captors to a virus unless they let him go. The United States and South Korea plan to unleash a biochemical weapon on the waterfront, which leads to angry protestors mixing it up with riot police.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Grandpa smokes a cigarette. Kang-du gives his young daughter a beer and says it's OK because he was in middle school when he started imbibing. While trapped in the sewers, Hyun-seo craves a cold beer and determines that it's the first thing she'll have when she gets home. Nam-il reportedly shows up drunk at Hyun-seo's school. At the memorial for his niece, he arrives with a whiskey bottle in his hand. People in the park throw beer into the water to attract the creature. Punctured beer cans spray their contents about. Doctors inject Kang-du with sedatives. Ignoring the environmental threat, a callous U.S. official orders that hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde be emptied into a sink that leads to the river.
The Host has benefited from significant international buzz, as well as high praise from prominent American critics. Variety trumpeted its uniqueness and predicted "instant cult status." New York Magazine called it "one of the greatest monster movies ever made." And it inspired the New York Times to boast, "The best film ... at this year's Cannes Film Festival." From a filmmaking standpoint, it deserves those kudos. Instead of resorting a gratuitous, gross-out feeding frenzy, the slimy freak of nature becomes an eye-popping, skin-crawling means to an end, that being to introduce issues and explore the growth of sympathetic characters.
Like all good science fiction The Host is about more than meets the eye: Government smoke-screens. Confronting demons of our own making. What being a family really means. Despite dragging a bit before the final, bittersweet act, The Host's ebb and flow of intense chases, lighter moments and pathos is effective ... and moving. At a time when scary movies seem committed to one-upping each other with torture, gore and sexualized violence, it's refreshing to see an old-fashioned creature feature that, while certainly more intense than Godzilla, resists the temptation to go over the top—and includes no sexual content at all. If only the language had been equally restrained.