Bong Joon-ho’s “The Host” – 2006 New York Film Festival Review

There may be other films at this year’s New York Film Festival that are weightier, important or “artistic,” but for sheer delight, “The Host” is populist cinema in the best sense. It is a crowd-pleaser that seamlessly integrates a fierce intelligence, irreverent humor and sharp satire with its big-budget spectacle. At its base, it is an unashamed genre picture, an old-fashioned monster movie custom-made for midnight showings.

“The Host” (the Korean title is simply “Monster”) was inspired by an actual 2000 incident in which toxic formaldehyde was dumped into the Han River which, while not causing major ecological damage, nevertheless was a major scandal. “The Host” is also currently the biggest box-office success in Korean history, having taken in more than 12 million admissions to date. In a country with a population of just under 50 million, this means that about a quarter of South Korea’s population has seen this film, a major achievement by any standard.

“The Host” differs from other films it may share superficial affinities to, such as “Godzilla” or “King Kong.” The monster in the film – an amphibian sea creature mutant created by the U.S. military’s pollution of the Han River with massive quantities of formaldehyde – is smaller than the typical rampaging movie counterparts. This enhances the sense of realism that Bong insists on, as he has in his previous films, despite the fantastic scenario.

Also, at its core, the film has not a typical action hero, but instead a deeply troubled, dysfunctional family that must overcome its own failings and infighting to rescue the young girl of their family who has been kidnapped and stored away for the creature’s food reserve. The family that fights the monster is an odd, eclectic bunch: Kang-du (Song Kang-ho), the dimwitted owner of a food stand near the Han River; his daughter Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung), captured by the monster; his brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il), a former activist now bitter and unemployed; his sister Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na), a champion archer; and his father Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong), who struggles to hold his fragile family together, which has been abandoned by two generations of mothers, both his own and his son’s wife.

In addition, as is the case in Bong’s other films, broad satirical humor is in abundance, centering on barbs directed toward the U.S. military’s presence in South Korea. However, Korean government structures are an equally potent target of satire in the film, especially their historical tendencies toward authoritarianism and bureaucratic inflexibility.

Bong excels at mixing disparate tones – juxtaposing broad comedy with more serious and tragic elements – and his skill at this is as much a delight to watch as the special effects. The CGI, a unique collaboration among talents from four countries – South Korea, the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand – is used judiciously and always in the service of realism.