What exactly makes The Host, an underdog blockbuster from Korea, such an excellent and welcome monster movie?
That's the question I asked myself shortly before last week's screening at the AFI Film Fest here in LA. Having read the raves from Cannes and other festivals about writer/director Joon-Ho Bong's horror film, I had the feeling I was in for something special ... but I was damned curious how a monster movie, of all things, could garner such amazing reviews. Maybe because it's been so long since a monster movie impressed me.
I'm here to report that The Host serves up a huge, scary, hungry monster that should please (and scare) fans of the genre. It's great CGI in the sense that it looks real (mostly), a physically active and very threatening beast has weight and heft and feels subject to the laws of physics. But the monster is the bullet here, not the bull's-eye.
What makes The Host such an excellent monster movie has nothing to do with its monster at all. I've long subscribed to the theory that a monster movie is only as strong as the characters who fight the monster, and this movie proves that in spades.
Think of Doctor Frankenstein. Ellen Ripley in Aliens. The titular good demon in Hellboy. (Conversely, think of all the monster movies that tanked despite the presence of great monsters. Chances are, their cardboard heroes bored you at "hello.")
The Host's secret weapon is a sad, dysfunctional and compelling family of losers who run a little snack truck. When one of them is abducted by the slimy beast, the others find unexpected strength by acting as one.
This charming clutch of failures reminds me, pleasantly so, of another recent film family whose imperfections are overcome when they band together for the common good.
The Host is a film about a splintered family defined by its encounter with a monster, not the other way around. In many ways, this widowed grandfather, his three neurotic grown children, and one bright granddaughter have already faced the greatest tragedy of their lives by the time we meet them. The missing grandmother's presence, never discussed, is often felt as keenly as if she were onscreen.
And while it exacts a high and heartbreaking price, the monster is almost a blessing because it's the catalyst that breaks them out of their motionless, self-pitying lives.
Director Bong doesn't waste time teasing us with glimpses of the beast. Less than 10 minutes after the main credits, we see the entirety of our monster in broad daylight, and what a grand monster it is: a giant Lovecraftian tadpole thing crawling and leaping and ripping through a horrified crowd in a riverside park. It ruthlessly stomps some folks flat (the rumbling sound mix here shook the theater) and swallows others in a huge horrid mouth that unfolds like the petals of some fanged alien flower.
There's your damned monster, Bong says triumphantly. Now let's tell a story.
And he proceeds to show us the creature's flexible, serpentine tail snatching away the granddaughter while her helpless father watches in horror ... and the story is literally off and running through secret detention centers, high-rise office buildings, and a concrete labyrinth of sewers.
The Host is a funny, scary and very emotional movie, with some odd moments and pacing that I didn't mind. Lending a bit of political gravitas is a subplot involving a virus outbreak and the drastic measures taken to contain it. As with the toxic waste that creates the monster in the first place, a cabal of deceitful Americans are pulling the strings. (If friendly South Korean audiences are so willing to accept Americans as lying meddlers, I'd hate to see a monster movie from Iran. Then again, if the heroes are worthy of their monster ...)
It's a joy to see this inept family pull together in the face of adversity. Even though she's separated from them for most of the movie, the resourceful granddaughter is clearly a member of the team. They are indeed heroes but just barely, and that's the magic of this movie. Their imperfections raise the stakes more than a legion of monsters could.
Character flaws in genre films are often little more than cosmetic blemishes to be dispatched by one or two Knowing Lines of Dialogue. So it's a giddy relief to see our heroes fail repeatedly (and sometimes very tragically) in their quest, and to know that these failures are born out of character and not arbitrary plot devices.
Such detail renders them authentic even when their actions border on the farcial. In one early comic scene, the family collapses and wails with grief so overplayed you can't help but laugh ... but you don't doubt for a moment that what they're feeling is real.
Tonally, the audience is kept off-balance, and that's part of the script's genius. What's funny in one scene leads to harsh tragedy just moments later. These characters begin their journeys as borderline stereotypes who, when plunged into fire, rage against their chains with a desperation that is transformative to witness.
The spiritual center of The Host is displayed in a beautiful silent scene where the weary, frazzled family pauses to eat bowls of noodles. The comfort they find in this communal act is heightened by a startling, dreamlike and completely random event that elevates them into a Bergman-esque realm of hushed wonder.
Through his interpreter, filmmaker Bong told a crowd after the screening that this scene is the most important one in the movie, an unexpected and highly emotional calm before the storm. It makes no logical sense whatsoever, but something emotional and instinctive inside you will nod in agreement, and you'll be aptly disarmed for the wonders and horrors ... and elation ... and tragedy ... that soon follow.
I've thought and smiled and daydreamed about this picture more than any other in the last year.
And I can't wait to see it again.
The Host is slated to open in selected U.S. markets this January.