Whether it’s the rubber costumes and visible zippers in the good ol’ days of “”Godzilla”” and “”Creature from the Black Lagoon,”” the cartoonish, computer-generated imagery of modern horror films like “”The Relic”” and “”Anaconda”” or the cliched casts of dashing heroes, brilliant scientists and savvy female reporters, it’s hard to take a monster movie seriously. But with his latest romp, acclaimed Korean writer/director Joon-ho Bong doesn’t ask us to do so. Instead, he embraces the slapstick action and absurd heroism that most moviemakers try to disguise, resulting in what might be the most fun – and most honest – monster movie ever made.
To give the creature feature a fresh angle, Bong replaces the undefeatable monster with a clumsy animal and the dashing heroes with a family of buffoons. His clear affection for the genre spills into his work, adding an unabashed sincerity and that helps him bridge moments of terrible tragedy with campy comedy – a pairing that has rarely, if ever, been executed so successfully. But the emotional grip of the story never eases either, as one of the monster’s victims, a young girl named Hyun-Seo, struggles to survive in the sewers while her family desperately tries to find and rescue her.
The family of half-witted protagonists is comprised of the genial grandfather, who runs a convenience store; his daughter, the bronze-medal-winning Olympic archer; his son, the unemployed grad student; and his other son, the half-retarded father of Hyun-Seo. When she’s abducted by the beast, the government is too inept and the community too paranoid to do anything to help, so the endearingly flawed family of underachievers sets out to rescue her themselves.
Bong provides the film with an unflappable sense of humor, even amid the story’s most grim moments. Soon after the monster emerges from the Han River and abducts Hyun-Seo, a mass funeral is held. While her family is sprawled on the ground in wailing grief, crying her name to the heavens, wallowing in abject misery and surrounded by the grieving families of countless other victims, the mourning is interrupted by a loudspeaker announcement asking the driver of an illegally parked car to please come to the parking lot. Then, a government official wearing a yellow hazmat suit steps in to announce the quarantine of everyone at the scene – as if things couldn’t get any worse. But before the official goes in another word, he slips and falls – probably in a puddle of the tears from the bereaved – right on his ass. It’s a strangely comfortable mix of sweltering pity and Marx Brothers humor.
Even the monster slips and stumbles in its pursuit of prey. And as the SUV-sized creature trips over its own feet, onlookers throw beer cans and government soldiers scramble to secure the quarantine, more concerned with containing any potential diseases the monster might carry than capturing or killing the ravaging beast.
There are only three Americans in “”The Host,”” all of whom are quite blunder-prone: the environmentally callous mortician in the opening scene (who creates the beast by dumping hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde into the drain simply because the bottles were dusty), an American sightseer (one of only two people ever to confront the monster) and a cross-eyed U.S. official who wants to perform brain surgery on Hyun-Seo’s mentally deficient father because “”maybe that’s where the virus is.””
Bong’s film is more than a monster flick. It’s a spoof on global hysteria and our relentless fear of an ever-approaching apocalypse in one form or another. As the four pathetic protagonists struggle to find the missing girl, they pass through a crazy world of frightened citizens clinging to surgical masks and bumbling government officials more frightened of pathogens than of the monster itself. Every character, flawed to the core, seems to fail in everything they do, but it’s impossible to stop rooting for them. At times unbearably heavy – yet incredibly light-hearted too – Bong’s satirical monster action/horror/comedy is a rare treat.