VIDEO: Watch the trailer for The Host
Running a finger across gallons of dust-covered bottles of formaldehyde, a US military official (Scott Wilson, setting a darkly humorous tone) orders a Korean underling at a US Army base’s morgue in Yongsan to “empty every bottle to the very last drop,” despite nervous protests that the toxic chemicals will drain into the Han River, the source of Seoul’s drinking supply. Such an event actually occurred in 2000, when the McFarland case shook the nation’s faith in its American allies. Harmful consequences were played down, but in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, the follow-up to his superlative 2003 thriller Memories of Murder, the drainage spawns a genetic mutation — part salamander, part fish, part . . . vagina dentata? — that emerges from the Han’s banks six years later. A gloriously realized rampage (the digital-effects artisans at San Francisco’s the Orphanage have located a perfect home for their exceptional talents) leaves scores of day-trippers maimed or worse before the scampering 15-foot-long beast drags young schoolgirl Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung) into the murky depths.
Economically introduced during the quick, deceptively quiet build-up to the creature’s showstopping debut are Hyun-seo’s family, the uncommunicative, dysfunctional Parks. Grandfather Hie-bong (Byeon Hi-bong) owns a trailer that doubles as a riverside convenience store. Dim-witted, lethargic father Gang-du (Memories of Murder’s Song Kang-ho) shirks his work just long enough to catch a glimpse of the beast while his siblings, hesitant archery champion Nam-joo (Linda Linda Linda’s charming Bae Du-na) and underemployed drunk Nam-il (Park Hai-il) wander in the periphery.
A lesser film would dive straight into a revenge plot, but it’s clear from just two of Bong’s films (I haven’t seen his debut, Barking Dogs Never Bite) that he’s a master of defying audience expectations, not to mention tonal shifts that run the spectrum from comic (seeing this with a Korean audience last month make it clear he’s even funnier if you speak the language) to tragic and back, rarely hitting a false note.
The attack’s aftermath finds the Parks among the bereaved in a makeshift memorial parlor. Their palpable grief turns to finger pointing before disintegrating into comic fisticuffs that allow the media to swoop in with exploitative fervor. Soon after, a hazmat-suited team arrives to corral the grieving masses; the US military is claiming that the amphibious monstrosity may be “host” to an unidentified, SARS-like virus. What the brass are really after is an opportunity to test out “Agent Yellow,” a potentially harmful state-of-the-art chemical and deployment system developed to combat virus outbreaks or biological terror. If the Korean middle class gets wiped out in the process, hey, at least we’re safeguarding democracy.
After receiving a barely audible cellphone call from their not-quite-dead kin, the Parks fumble their way out of quarantine and into a rescue mission, burrowing through many of the same dank caverns and dark spaces that featured in Bong’s previous thriller, with unexpected death hovering just beyond the frame. It may be a “monster movie,” but given proper care, it could become the monster hit it was in South Korea. And if you like multi-layered satire filtered throughout your pathos and drama, Bong’s digs at US foreign policy will add a welcome splash of muckraking.