Good monster movies are few and far between these days. Not since Tremors has there been a creature feature filled with the kind of '50s-style popcorn-movie mayhem Bong Joon-ho's The Host ladles up with gleeful abandon. But unlike that nearly 20-year-old horror confection, the South Korean director has a little more on his mind than goofy high-octane thrills. Mixed in with inspired visual jokes and Spielbergian sentimentality, The Host is unapologetic in its criticisms of U.S. political arrogance and overreaction. It's a stance that echoes the original Godzilla's indictment of American atomic activity during World War II.
Years after an American Army officer forces a Korean lab technician to dump dangerous chemicals down a drain that leads to the Han River, a horrifying mutant frog-fish-beast runs amok, swallowing and regurgitating victims with gusto.
Throwing monster movie conventions to the wind, Bong skips the typical slow introduction of his way-cool beastie, bringing it out into the open a mere 10 minutes after the credits. It's a gloriously vicious scene as the marauding fiend lays siege to a crowd of picnickers at a riverside park.
Amid the panic and carnage, schoolgirl Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung) is snatched up by the monster and dragged off in front of her irresponsible, dim-witted father, Gang-du (Song Kang-ho from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). Held in government quarantine because of his exposure to the beast, Gang gets a desperate cell-phone call from Hyun-seo: She's trapped in the monster's sewer lair. Teamed with his family, a clan of lovable losers, he sets out to rescue the beloved seventh-grader.
This dysfunctional bunch which includes Grandpa Hee-bong, ex-activist brother Nam-il and overly careful competitive archer Nam-joo turns out to be equally comical and endearing, valiantly pulling together to fight a hideously brutal foe. They're the last people on earth you'd want coming to your rescue, and yet their sense of loyalty and rousing heroism makes for an undeniably affecting tale.
More importantly, however, The Host delivers the B-movie goods, masterfully mixing humor and horror to produce the ultimate guilty pleasure: a giant monster flick that surprises and scares in equal doses. Bong's action sequences are breathlessly paced and expertly choreographed, and his ferocious mutant amphibian is truly something to behold. Created by WETA Workshops (Lord Of The Rings, King Kong) it convincingly leaps and swings from the city's bridges with Alien-like savagery. A repulsive and terrifying creation, Bong puts it front and center, suggesting that nature is cruel and calculating. His monster is completely indifferent to mankind. We're just bags of meat waiting to be ingested.
Though the film runs a tad long, Bong tweaks genre conventions just enough to keep us on our toes. In particular, he delivers an apocalyptic Hollywood-style ending that no Hollywood studio would ever permit. A delirious mix of political satire, family drama and genre scares, The Host is the perfect giant monster movie for our eco-damaged, terrorism-obsessed era. See it before it disappears from local theaters.
Showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].