An update of the classic Asian monster movies of yore, “The Host” boasts a wicked sense of humor and vastly improved special effects. (Not once do you see a zipper up the back of a rubber suit.)
Korean writer-director Bong Joon-Ho has crafted a film that just kicks butt from start to finish, even though its anti-American sentiment feels a bit half-baked. He is clearly well-acquainted with the genre, though, and is confident enough in his abilities to make it his own.
Reminiscent of another recent smart, sly horror movie, 2004’s “Shaun of the Dead,” “The Host” begins with a dry, frequently absurd comic sensibility, but steadily grows darker, more intense and truly thrilling.
Pollution in Seoul’s Han River (caused by a thoughtless American scientist, naturally) gives birth to a freakishly large, angry, mutant fish that’s a marvel to behold — the product of a collaboration between the visual effects specialists at Weta Workshop (the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy) and The Orphanage (“Sin City”).
The creature is at once familiar and unlike anything you’ve seen before: It swings gracefully from bridges, leaps from the water to lash people with its long tail, and frequently just hops up on shore and runs after its prey. And the first time we see it, it thunders onto the scene — no oppressively melodramatic music to accompany its arrival, which makes it even more powerful. The monster knows how to make an entrance (and so does Bong.)
Oh, did we mention? The fish has feet. And several buggy eyes that sprout all over its scaly head and a mouth that opens like a tulip to suck people in and either a) spit them back out or b) devour them to their bones. Very clever and cool.
One of the victims it picks up and scampers off with is teenage schoolgirl Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung), which forces her slacker dad, Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), and the rest of her dysfunctional family to spring into action to rescue her.
Hyun-seo’s aunt, Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na), is a competitive archer with a propensity for choking at the most crucial moments (though her skills do come in handy as the film progresses). Her uncle, Nam-il (Park Hae-il), is the family’s comparative success story: He actually has a college degree, though he has no job. And family patriarch Heui-bong (Byeon Heui-bong) runs a longtime food stand on the banks of the river, where Gang-du works but mostly snoozes.
At first they assume Hyun-seo is dead, along with countless others who fell in the path of the monster’s rampage; rather than console each other, they collapse in a pile of kicking and slapping and laying blame for her fate. But then they receive a scratchy cell phone call from the sewer and realize she’s still alive — and that they must save her, even though they have absolutely no clue what they’re doing.
They’re a Korean version of the “Little Miss Sunshine” clan, complete with a minivan (which they’ve stolen), which would seem annoyingly trite if it weren’t so curiously charming in itself. They’re so well developed, you really grow to care about these people.
Meanwhile, a hysteria is spreading across the region, as it seems anyone who came into contact with the monster is carrying a deadly virus (hence the title). The government borrows a U.S. military device for cleansing the area: the very mysterious Agent Yellow, which causes nothing but paranoia and panic. Basically, everything American in the film causes paranoia and panic, a political concept Bong broaches but never truly fleshes out.
But the director does know how to create a mood that tingles with suspense; he grabs you and doesn’t let go, and he doesn’t go for the easy ending. And that’s anti-American too, in the best possible way.