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The Host, a gleefully scary romp of a monster movie that's the highest-grossing Korean film of all time, is invading American screens the way its titular monster occupies the Han River in Seoul. The movie pops up out of nowhere, grabs you in its big, messy tentacles, and drags you down into murky depths, where social satire coexists with slapstick, and B-movie clichés mutate into complex metaphors. Though it recalls and specifically references classics of the genre, from Jaws to Alien to Godzilla to The Winged Serpent, The Host, directed by Bong Joon-Ho, is defiantly sui generis. You've never seen anything quite like it (at least until the already-planned and no doubt disappointing American remake comes out).
In a prologue set in the year 2000 on a Seoul military base, an American scientist (the fine actor Scott Wilson in a tiny part) orders his Korean lab assistant to dump gallons of leftover formaldehyde directly into a sink drain. When the underling protests that the toxic chemicals will run directly into the water system, the arrogant doctor rationalizes that "the Han River is broad. Let's be broad-minded about this."
We then jump forward to 2006. Park Hie-bong (Byeon Hie-bong) manages a snack stand on the banks of the Han with his son, a bleached-blond ne'er-do-well named Gang-du (Song Kang-ho). Gang-du has a 13-year-old daughter, Hyeon-seo (Ko Ah-sung), whose mother abandoned her at birth. As Hyeon-seo and her layabout dad watch her aunt, Nam-joo (Bae Du-na), place third in a national archery competition on TV, something strange is happening in the river outside. What looks to be a giant, multilegged tadpole hangs upside down from a bridge piling, does a few impressive loop-the-loops under the bridge, and then disappears into the water. Passersby gather to watch, throwing food at the mysterious amphibian. Moments later, in defiance of the monster-movie convention of the slow reveal, the thing is galumphing along the riverbank in full daylight, munching its way through entire trailers full of people.
Gang-du and Hyeon-seo make a run for it, but the monster seizes the girl (wrapping a tentacle around her waist in a shot of terrifying beauty) and plunges back into the depths of the river.
The second act of the film, as the Park family gathers to mourn the loss of Hyeon-seo in a chaotic gymnasium set aside for the victims' families, is when things start to get wonderfully weird. Slowly we realize that the Parks are more than just narrative conveniences, the first in a lineup of victims of the mutant frog-thing. They're our heroes, our only hope in a world of bureaucratic mismanagement and boneheaded American interventionism (when a Yank in a haz-mat suit arrives to debrief the families, the first thing he does is take a comic pratfall). No Robert Shaws and Richard Dreyfusses will be swooping in to catch this monster. The Parks are going to have to do it themselves, despite Gang-du's narcolepsy, his brother's incipient alcoholism, his sister's so-so archery skills, and the whole family's nonstop squabbling.
I won't reveal any of the twists that make the rest of The Host such a gross, scary, funny, and dramatically satisfying ride. It's a movie you have to give yourself over to—the laughs and screams aren't doled out at predictable intervals, and the people who survive aren't the ones you might expect to. The ending achieves an absurd nobility as the Parks finally do face-to-face battle with their fish-faced nemesis, armed only with Molotov cocktails, a bow and arrow, and an uprooted traffic sign. Song Kang-ho (a Korean star who was recently seen in the United States in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) is especially charming as Gang-du, a dad so devoted he won't let a lobotomy keep him from saving his daughter.
Like all great monster movies, The Host gestures at the cultural anxieties it channels without ever naming them outright. The movie's vision of Americans as oblivious, trigger-happy, and dangerously stupid is a jab at the American military presence in South Korea and, possibly, at the war in Iraq as well. The virus that the monster is rumored to carry (and which may be a lie manufactured by the state for crowd-control purposes) could be a metaphor for AIDS, SARS, or environmental pollution. The news anchors seen constantly jabbering on TV screens present a reality so different from the one we see before our eyes that there's no need to hammer home the irony. With a paranoid logic worthy of George Romero, director Joon-Ho Bong implies that media and government are equally incompetent and untrustworthy. When you need saving from the maw of a mutant river beast, you've got nowhere to turn but your kin.
As for the monster himself, he's no Spielbergian triumph of special effects, just a good old-fashioned swamp thing, imagined in repulsive detail and rendered in competent CGI. There's something almost comic about the creature's lumpen, asymmetrical form and clumsy gait, but when his multiple mouths-within-mouths open up Alien-style to disgorge a stomach full of human bones, it's enough to make you think twice about that river-rafting trip you were planning for next summer. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water …