‘Host’ provides even-handed humorIn 1954, in fictional Tokyo, an American underwater nuclear test revived a terrible monster ― Gojira ― and a genre was born. Over the following decades men in rubber suits crushing model cities became a focus of national cinematic catharsis for a nation ravaged by war. But somewhere along the way, these films forgot their roots in lowbrow but effective social commentary. They became mere popcorn-crunching vehicles for special effects, destructive exercises in movie excess and nothing more, as the 1998 American remake of “Godzilla” so excruciatingly demonstrates.
But “The Host” is a return to classic monster movie form. An American coroner orders his Korean underling to dump a large amount of formaldehyde down the drain ― and into the Han River. Through some unspecified mechanism, this creates a horrible monster ― a sort of amphibian Ankylosaurus ― that rampages along the Han, stealing a young girl, Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung), and taking her back to its lair. Naturally the girl’s father, Park Kang-du (Song Kang-ho), sets out to rescue her. But when the government begins to worry that the monster is carrying a virus, the father and his family become fugitives.
Kang-du leads a team of uniquely Korean proletarian heroes: His brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il) is an unemployed 386er and former student protester, while his sister Nam-joo (Bae Du-na) is a member of the Korean national archery team, well known as one of the country’s international strong suits.
So when “The Host” soared over 12.3 million tickets sold to displace “The Royal Jester” as the most successful Korean film of all time, we were told it was riding a wave of nationalist and particularly anti-American sentiment, since it sets the Korean salt of the earth opposite the discompassionate United States, oh so subtly represented by the monster its recklessness created.
But I think there’s another reason for its popularity: It’s just a funny, exciting, straightforward, unpretentious movie.
The most surprising aspect here is the humor. At a funeral for victims’ families ― a scene with truly heart-wrenching counterparts in the original “Gojira” ― the Parks fall over each other in grief, drawing photojournalists to capture their humiliation. Bong turns a moment of sadness into a chance for slapstick comedy and a perfect transition to one of the funniest scenes in the film, when a fey government “yes” man leads troops in biohazard suits to quarantine the grieving families. It’s this occasional lightness of tone that charms the audience into forgiving the movie’s more patently ridiculous aspects (like the grotesque cgi monster itself).
“The Host” is less a rant against American imperialism and more a condemnation of government stupidity and carelessness ― American and Korean alike. After all, it’s a Korean, blindly following orders he knows to be illegal, who causes this mess in the first place. And the police who refuse to lift a finger to find Hyun-seo, and later deny the evidence that there is no virus after all, are Korean.
This political even-handedness gives “The Host” legitimate mass appeal and a positive social message, while humor keeps things from ever getting too heavy. A computerized wireframe has replaced a man under the rubber suit, but even so, this monster’s sweaty Japanese forebears would be proud.
by Ben Applegate