Note: This review was originally written May 3rd, 2010
To call Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host just another monster movie is a huge understatement to the accomplishment of this film. First, it is hard not to be taken aback by how thoroughly entertaining it is. Second, it is even harder not to be taken aback by all of the tonal qualities of the film and the wonderfully personal and odd family at the center. There is so much to admire here, making it of the best films of the past decade and a rare treat.
The film concerns, in what is a not so flattering depiction of the United States, a 2000 incident in which a mortician working for the US military dumps large amounts down the drain. The first scene depicts the incident and six years later, the fictional consequences make up the main premise of the film. The family is introduced in the very same scene in which the inciting incident takes place. It’s a wonderfully intricate sequence as we are introduced to Gang-Du, a lazy and largely inept but caring father and worker who is currently employed at his father Hee-Bong’s snack bar. Hyun-Seo arrives to the snack bar from school upset at her father for not being at Parent’s Day and for her uncle, Nam-Il for showing up instead with alcohol on his breath. They go inside to watch Hyun-Seo’s aunt Nam-Joo, who is a medalist archer, on television. This time is used wisely to establish the interactions between this family and how Gang-Du, Hee-Bong and Hyun-Seo function together in their everyday lives.
The main plot concerns what happens after this when the monster eventually snatches Hyun-Seo. The monster’s blood is sprayed on Gang-Du’s face making the authority figures thinking that it represents a deadly contagious virus, forcing the family to go on the run as they search for Hyun-Se who they have discovered, is still alive somewhere in the sewers.
The most unique aspect of The Host is the way that director Bong Joon-Ho plays with tone. It’s not black enough to be a black comedy, not outright funny enough to be a regular comedy and not self-serious enough to be a drama; the director understands that life has no genre and that oddly funny moments can happen at the most inappropriate times. He is also, and this is a fundamental key to the success of this film, aware that people do not radically change in extreme situations. The film works so well because the character themselves are such an interesting group to put in the middle of this crisis. Seeing these characters trying to work their way through this problem is what separates it from the pack. While they adjust to the crisis up to a point, these are not people used to solving problems. In addition to this, the crisis does not obliterate the interfamily conflicts; in fact it heightens those conflicts, except in this film that drama is much of the time oddly funny.
An example of this very special tone that Bong Joon-Ho has concocted can be explained by one scene maybe more than the rest. Shortly after Hyun-Seo is taken, the people who witnessed the incident are taken to a building where they are kept for a period of time. This is where we meet the other two key members of the family as Nam-Il and Nam-Joo join their brother and father to mourn for Hyun-Seo, who they still believe at this point to be dead. Many people are sobbing as there are pictures lined up of all the people the monster has killed with small memorials set up for each of them. Gang-Du walks up to the picture of his daughter and starts sobbing. One by one the family members join Gang-Du as they all let their emotions out. Instead of being a serious scene yet without invalidating what these characters are going through, it becomes oddly amusing. It is then taken a step further as their outbursts start attracting attention; people start taking pictures and authority figures start trying to calm them down. Then in the midst of the chaos and the arguing that has broken out between the families as they still grieve everyone falls down which is shown in an overhead shot. Now we have these characters, who still continue to sob, except they are now all writhing on the ground rolling around everywhere. It’s one of the oddest scenes in recent memory and it also might be my personal favorite in the film. The context of the situation is horribly tragic but the director takes this opportunity to show a scene unlike anything else that exists. By giving us a new take on a situation that is a recurring incident in films, a family grieving for the loss of a loved one, Bong Joon-Ho shows us a new take. He can take situations we have seen before and look at them with a different eye and show us a way of seeing things that we have never considered.
The film looks amazing as well. With an unprecedented budget of 10 million dollars, the production values are top notch and the visual aesthetic of the film is engaging as well as the beautiful string-heavy score by Lee Byung-Woo who also did the equally beautiful score to A Tale of Two Sisters. It manages to function as a monster movie as well as it is easily the only stable genre that can be pinned to this film. The monster’s design and movements are frightening as well and of course there are both new spins and homage to old conventions of the genre as well.
The film’s distinct tone also makes the film unpredictable. There are several things that happen in this that actually are very devastating including something that is unprecedented and surely going against what anyone would expect. It becomes unpredictable whether a scene is going to take a drastically amusing turn or a drastically tragic one. This keeps things interesting on yet another level and nothing quite follows any specific pattern and its structure is so refreshing, making it impossible to see the writer anywhere in this piece.
The Host is a uniformly excellent film. It is funny, tragic, fascinating, exciting and suspenseful. It also boasts an additional quality in that we actually care deeply about these characters, not just as individuals, but as a family unit. It makes for active viewing in more ways than one. Bong Joon-Ho has something and watching him further create contributions to film is going to be an absolute treat.