Fans of horror movies know that East Asia is currently experiencing a renaissance of terror. A glance at Internet message boards shows that teenagers who normally avoid subtitles are eagerly renting fright films from Japan and Hong Kong, such as The Ring, Dark Water and The Eye, many of them released under Tartan Video's "Asia Extreme" label. But those of us who'd like to see these movies on a big screen generally have to wait for an inferior American remake, such as last summer's Pulse.
The Host, South Korea's highest grossing film ever, is being touted as an "Asian extreme" film that could make it to Middle American multiplexes. Directed by Bong Joon-ho, The Host isn't a moody ghost story, like most of the other Asian imports. It's an old-fashioned monster movie with a prickly political subtext, like the classic Japanese Godzilla films. And, though it would be a stretch to call it a "family film," The Host is a film in which family trumps all.
Remember how Godzilla emerged from a nuclear blast? The monster of The Host emerges from an American army base, where a neat-freak doctor orders his Korean subordinate to pour a stock of formaldehyde down the drain. The chemical invades the Han River and resurfaces two years later - it's implied - in the form of a big, four-legged, tentacled, tadpole-ish critter with a taste for human flesh. After the monster swims to shore and chows down on some vacationers, the authorities announce that it carries a deadly virus. Witnesses to the attack are quarantined, and people on the streets of Seoul wear masks to avoid contamination. Echoes of the 2002 SARS outbreak are obvious - and ominous.
In fact, the Korean military, prodded by the Americans, is so gung-ho to contain the virus that it doesn't bother with the monster itself. That turns out to be the job of an unassuming single dad named Park Gang-Du (Song Kang-ho), who spends most of his time dozing when he's supposed to be minding his riverside snack shack. Gang-Du's schoolgirl daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung) is presumed dead, a victim of the monster's first attack, when he receives a cellphone call from deep inside a sewer. Hyun-seo is alive, trapped in the monster's lair.
When Gang-Du asks the police for help, they figure the virus is affecting his brain. It doesn't help that he's moon-faced and a bit slow-witted. So the Park family - including Gang-Du's aged father, his tippling slacker brother, and his archery-champion sister - takes matters into its own hands.
For American audiences, The Host is a strange, genre-bending mixture. It has an austere visual style, with a palette of murky blues and greens to match the monster's haunts, but there's nothing austere about the script. It's terrifying when young Hyun-seo is confronting the monster, sentimental when the family bonds against it, and funny when they're baiting and bickering with one another - even when they're mourning Hyun-seo, surrounded by other grieving survivors. (It's safe to say a scene like this would never appear in a Hollywood film.)
A recurring theme in the movie is the simple comfort of food. One character evokes the traditional "right of the hungry" to snatch food where they can, which certainly puts the monster in a new light - can it be blamed for wanting a snack? Though its CGI can be iffy, the sinuous monster behaves like a real, hungry animal, not a preternaturally alert villain like the raptors in Jurassic Park. In the end, it's less scary than what the Centers for Disease Control does to combat the virus - and that's food for thought.