Amonster movie for our terrorism and biological warfare-shrouded era, Bong Joon-ho’s The Host delivers high-octane thrills while cannily exploiting contemporary political fears, with some inspired visual humor amplifying its overriding mood of popcorn-movie excitement. When a U.S. military scientist orders an immense stash of toxic formaldehyde to be dumped down the drain, the result is the birth of a mutant amphibian/reptilian beast in Seoul’s Han River, along which citizens picnic and Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong), with the help of immature adult son Kang-du (Song Kang-ho), operates a food stand. Kang-du is the doting if irresponsible father to seventh-grader Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung), and with a deft touch and attention to small details (Kang-du hiding a stash of money for his daughter’s new cellphone behind a stuffed animal head; his surreptitious ingestion of a customer’s squid leg), Bong quickly paints an endearing and comical portrait of his central familial unit, a quirky, loyal, financially strapped clan which, it’s later revealed, also includes unemployed college grad Nam-il (Park Hae-il) and dawdling archer Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na).
The director has a knack for vividly conveying the essence of his ragtag protagonists through minor moments, and in his film’s sterling intro, displays a sure-handed—and, to some extent, Spielbergian—gift for eliciting empathy for his less-than-perfect souls. Such attention to character doesn’t waver once the story’s beast emerges from the Han to wreak havoc on unsuspecting onlookers, as The Host remains firmly fixated on the personal even as its propulsive momentum picks up steam and the inhuman fiend, traversing land like a leaping dinosaur and swinging underneath the city’s bridges with Alien-like rapidity, swallows Hyun-seo whole and then deposits her via regurgitation in a dank sewer pit.
Bong’s camera glides effortlessly through intensely choreographed set pieces, utilizing breathtaking pans and potent slow-motion to give the action a vitality that’s further enhanced by his frequent insertion of amusing asides (a girl wearing headphones proves oblivious to the fleeing crowds; a Hazmat-encased military man clumsily falls down and then even more clumsily tries to act cool in the face of embarrassment). And yet thanks to sterling performances by both Song and Hee-bong, the hectic film maintains a consistently affecting human dimension that Bong’s mirthful mayhem thankfully never engulfs, with its charming portrait of parents and children epitomized by a scene in which Hee-Bong earnestly beseeches the relatively well-adjusted Nam-il and Nam-joo to treat their sibling Kang-du with love and respect while the duo, exhausted from their adventure and bored by the lecture, doze off.
After the creature is identified as the carrier of a deadly new virus (hence the movie’s title), the military enacts a multi-tiered plan that involves quarantining anyone who’s had contact with the monster, setting up armed roadside checkpoints, fumigating the streets, and ultimately allowing the U.S. government and WHO to blast the metropolis with a bacteria-annihilating chemical weapon known as Agent Yellow. Issues of foreign invasion, homeland security, pollution, pestilence, and government misinformation soon begin peering out from beneath The Host‘s B-movie exterior, imbuing the sci-fi proceedings with haunting present-day parallels. Nonetheless, Bong’s creature feature stops far short of mutating into a sermonizing, this-means-that allegory, instead allowing such vague analogies to simply help root his out-there story in a believable, recognizable contextual framework.
The virus’s man-made origins—and the government’s excessive response to the plague-like threat (which, it’s eventually revealed, is nonexistent)—may, ultimately, illuminate the catastrophic pitfalls that await those foolish or arrogant enough to seek easy solutions for serious problems. But in Bong’s compassionate hands, The Host‘s wider geopolitical warnings mainly serve as counterpoints to his more intimate (and touching) concerns: the virtue of hard work, the nobility of selflessness, and the unrivaled heroism of being a dutiful, devoted, and loving father.
Okay, so I haven't had the pleasure of laying eyes on KD Media's three-disc edition of The Host, but I've seen the screen caps and they suggest that anyone who owns the Region 3 disc may consider this two-disc edition from Magnolia Home Entertainment something of a downgrade. The sound is excellent, though it must be noted that the default soundtrack is the English 5.1 dub and not the original Korean (boo!). As for the image, color saturation and shadow delineation is good overall, especially during close-ups and more intimate, well-lit scenarios, but things begin to fall apart when day turns to night and the film's creature starts making the rounds. Blacks are gloppy, edge enhancement is a casual nuisance, and artifacts may cause blindness: The opening scene is beautiful, but that great dissolve between the toxic poison bottles and the water of the Seoul's Han River is cluttered with digital junk around the tops of the bottles.
Sight and Sound writer Tony Rayans explains that he appears on the disc's commentary with Bong Joon-ho in order to keep the director from launching into far-flung tangents, though it would have been more honest had he said that the obstacle he was trying to resolve was Bong's language barrier. Anyway, this is a reasonably intelligent track, with Bong drawing lines at one point between what is deliberate social commentary and what is just a jokey but accurate reflection of his people's everyday behaviors. (Rayans even makes a quick and interesting correlation between a later scene and the perversity of the Bush administration.) Bong is more natural in his own tongue, sharing his "reflections" on the making of the film during a five-and-a-half minute featurette. Also on disc one: a bunch of deleted news clips and a lengthy collection of deleted scenes that could have benefited from context of some kind, like on-screen text or an optional commentary track. Disc two is a daunting collection of behind-the-scenes goodies, including multipart sections devoted to the making of the film (the storyboard reel is the highlight) and the evolution of the creature from conceptualization to actualization. (The latter section is so thorough, almost tedious, that you may feel as if you designed the creature yourself.) Other sections lavish attention on the film's crew and cast (through interviews, training videos, and casting tapes), though some of the information we glean from these segments feels redundant after the eight-part making-of feature. Rounding things out is a terribly unfunny gag reel, a goodbye message from the cast, a collection of Korean trailers, and previews for other titles from Magnolia Home Entertainment.
The image is a bit of a downer, but the film is still thrilling, and the extras will keep you busy for days.