What do you get when you cross Little Miss Sunshine with Godzilla? You get a cinematic mutant not unlike The Host, Bong Joon-ho's scary yet funny yet moving yet scary exercise in dysfunctional-family horror/comedy. We haven't seen too many creature features come out of Asia since Mothra had its wings clipped by that guy in a lizard suit. Perhaps only Hollywood studios could afford the f/x work required to leave the lizard suit behind. But Bong found the money somewhere. And his critter, though a little weightless by contemporary CGI standards, especially when shown in broad daylight, is a fearsome thing to behold - part T. rex, part Loch Ness monster, and with a gymnastic ability not seen since Nadia Comaneci was scoring perfect tens. When it did a back-flip into the Han River, I didn't know whether to scream or stand up and cheer.
An early scene fills us in on its sci-fi origins. In an army-base morgue, an American officer orders a Korean assistant to pour out 200 bottles of formaldehyde that have gathered dust. And that's only the first of several jabs at the U.S.'s participation in South Korean affairs. Unfortunately, the morgue drains into the Han, which flows through Seoul. And it's not long before this toxic-waste dump has produced what Freud called the return of the repressed. One sunny day, in a park along the river, people notice this...thing stuck to the underside of a bridge. Some point at it. Others toss beer cans, after which the critter executes a dive Greg Louganis would have been proud of and swims over to meet the new neighbors. What follows is a rampage noteworthy for its skill and dispatch. Apparently, Bong doesn't believe in the slow reveal.
No, he veritably blows his wad, even jumps the shark, something Steven Spielberg was forced not to do in Jaws, given that his mechanical shark didn't function very well. But this works in The Host's favor, allows us to concentrate on other things - namely, the Park family, which, although it doesn't have to push-start its van, hasn't exactly been sailing down the highway. Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong), the patriarch, runs a food cart in the park next to the river. His grown son, Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), also works at the food cart, if "work" is the right word. A slacker who may be touched in the head, Gang-du is the movie's unlikely hero, and when his young daughter, Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung), is carried off by the critter, it brings out the Sir Galahad in him. It also brings out his brother, a college grad who drinks too much, and his sister, an archery champion who doesn't always release the arrow in time.
None of them get along all that well, but the need to save Hyun-seo brings them together. At first, they assume she's dead. And in a hilariously over-the-top display of grief, they collapse on the floor, flapping around like the catch of the day. But then Hyun-seo puts through a cell-phone call from inside the monster's lair, deep within the city's sewer system, where she herself is being treated like the catch of the day. Can her family save her? That will depend, in part, on whether it can withstand the onslaught of the military and the scientific community, which are performing the role they often perform in sci-fi flicks: doing more harm than good. Gang-du, having had intimate contact with the monster while trying to escape with Hyun-seo, is quarantined and worse when it's discovered that there's a new virus going around. But is there really a new virus going around, or is that just an excuse to overreact?
Bong obviously has a few things on his mind - WMDs, SARS, various other acronyms, including the USA, which has played host to all sorts of viruses coursing through South Korea's bloodstream. But, to his credit, he doesn't allow any of that to get in the way of having a good time. And there are a few moments that will leave audiences choking on their Milk Duds. When the beastie returns from one of its periodic hunting expeditions, it disgorges what can only be described as a hailstorm of skulls and bones, the clatter enough to get me to swear off meat for a few days. What's nice about the movie is that there are also moments of tenderness and of an almost throwaway humor. When a man in a hazard suit trips and falls, then leaps to his feet to regain his dignity, it tells us everything we need to know about the government's response.
It's clear from the beginning that it will be up to the Park family to save its youngest member. Only Sir Galahad can slay the dragon. And as we all know, the family that slays together stays together.