Like a circus lion tamer, South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho trains a giant amphibious mutant in the horror flick The Host. Showing a sense of command similar to Stephen Spielberg's way with T. Rexes and great white sharks, Joon-ho presents a crackling creature-feature, centered around a marauding beast that emerges from Seoul's sewers to swing across bridges and snatch up pedestrians.
Joon-ho violates only one of Spielberg's rules: to build suspense and dread by keeping the monster under wraps as long as possible. Instead, The Host reveals its creature early on, when the beast runs amok in overcast daylight at a riverside park. Fortunately, Joon-ho's storytelling control and computer effects are skillful enough that the slimy thing's appearances keep our skin crawling throughout the film.
The Host advocates a similar anti-authority message as the likes of Jaws and Jurassic Park. Formaldehyde pollution of the Han River (patterned after an actual incident) causes the mutation, while the nature of the beast gets covered up by SARS-esque medical hysteria. With Americans at the root of both incidents, the beast emerges as a symbol of U.S. indifference to and exploitation of South Korea, similar to the way Godzilla's early films offered a metaphor for the Hiroshima bombing. The Host's only major misstep involves the bad acting of the American heavies, whose nasty villainy conveys a depth of resentment toward U.S. presence in Asia that might surprise audiences on this continent.
The Host frequently keeps the viewer off-balance with unexpected mood swings, going from thrilling set pieces to broad satire to quiet character moments. The primary story involves a stumblebum, bottle-blond food-stand employee (Song Kang-ho), whose schoolgirl daughter (Ko Ah-sung) gets taken by the beast. The family's initial grief turns into comedic infighting and then a touching show of unity. Convinced that the girl's still alive and trapped in the quarantine zone, her relatives defy government officials and band together to find her.
The film's diverse themes of fearsome adventure, political critique and character study come together as tightly as a snare in the exciting climax. Though The Host presents a welcome revival of the old-school giant-monster movie, its thoughtful family dynamics play almost like Little Miss Sunshine, only hinging on horror instead of humor.
The Host, 4 stars. Directed by Bong Joon-ho. Stars Song Kang-ho, Ko Ah-sung. Rated R. Opens Fri., March 9. At Regal Tara, Regal Hollywood 24.