Threat-Level: Killer Tadpole

Korean box-office monster emerges from the Han River to slime us stateside

Gross-out horror is never far from comedy and The Host, Bong Joon-ho's giddy creature feature, has an anarchic mess factor worthy of a pile of old Mad magazines. A broadly played clown show full of lowbrow antics, Bong's big splat is itself a sort of monster—the top grossing movie in South Korean history—and, since it surfaced at Cannes last May, festival audiences having been slurping it down like ramen.

The Host's main attraction is a mutant carnivore-cum-somersaulting slimeball. As Mad once "animated" a garbage dump called the Heap, so The Host presents what might be a chunk of phlegm hawked from the maw of our despoiled earth. This killer tadpole can swim like a fish, scuttle like an insect, and run like a Spielberg raptor. Even more than the 1933 King Kong, Bong's creature is a surreal entity with no fixed size. As the materialization of dread, this nameless monster is harder to pin down than the radioactive, fire-breathing Godzilla. It's an "It."

Bong's allegory is deliberately free-floating; still, that the thing has its origins in American stupidity and hubris is made clear in The Host's prologue, set in a morgue on a U.S. Army base. Offended by the dust on some unused bottles of formaldehyde, an overbearing American officer orders a hapless Mr. Kim to dump gallons of toxic chemicals down the drain and into the Han River. A few years pass and two fishermen spot something gross swimming in the murk. . . . Cut to the wacky dysfunctional family who operate a riverside fast-food stand.

Look out! There's an American director around the corner, waiting to rip off your movie.
Magnolia Pictures
Look out! There's an American director around the corner, waiting to rip off your movie.

Details

The Host
Written and directed by Bong Joon-ho
Magnolia Pictures
Opens March 9

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The Park clan consists of an elderly patriarch and his two deadbeat sons—one a slob, the other a drunk—and a daughter who is a championship archer with an unfortunate psychological hitch. There's also 11-year-old granddaughter Hyun-seo, courtesy of the slob—busy dishing out fried squid when he realizes that, down by the river, picnickers are transfixed by something suspended beneath the bridge.

The It falls into the water and swims over. Ordinary people, being what they are, merrily pelt the unknown creature with garbage until, with projectile force, it bounds ashore and the chase is on—thud, grab, leaping lizards! Establishing a galumphing tone of carnivalesque terror that trumps just about everything to follow, this picnic panic is a comic replay of 9/11 or even Sergei Eisenstein's "Odessa Steps." Then the thing dives back into the river, scattering a gaggle of swan-shaped paddleboats, with little Hyun-seo in its fishy clutches. From then on, it's personal.

Like the original, Japanese version of Godzilla, The Host gives catastrophe a naturalistic follow-through. A mass funeral for the monster's victims is held in a gymnasium that's housing traumatized survivors. The elder Park vows to rescue his granddaughter—or at least wreak vengeance. The girl's aunt solemnly offers up her bronze medal. Unlike the equivalent moments in Godzilla, however, this somber scene soon disintegrates into farce. The drunken brother arrives to immediately start blaming his siblings. The entire family is rolling-on-the-floor hysterical when the shelter is quarantined. The creature, it's explained—in such a way as to defy any rational explanation—was carrying a mysterious virus. But is it the It or South Korea who is really the host?

From the perspective of the Parks, the monster comes to embody whatever irrational forces oppress them. The authorities are essentially the It's agents; their main concern is subduing the "contaminated" family who, having received a cell phone call from Hyun-seo, are desperate to escape. Discovering that the creature is warehousing its victims, the Parks troll the roiling Han for their lost child. Meanwhile, the authorities are after the nonexistent virus. The sinister Americans are even planning to drill a guy's head for it: "The virus has definitely invaded his brain." It's what Borat called a "war of terror."

Bong, who has dealt with desperate pet-nappers and serial killers in his previous features—the crazy romantic comedy Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) and the sociological policer Memories of Murder (2003)—has no difficulty integrating the horrifying, the stooge-like, and the everyday. (In that, he's even more extreme than our own masters of sociologic shock schlock—George Romero, Larry Cohen, and Joe Dante.) Just as grisly bio-horror is tricked out with cheesy effects and inappropriate music, so do spasms of naturalistic grief-coping alternate with pop-eyed slapstick. The Host is disgusting in some original and unforgettable ways, as when the monster vomits out human bones and an indigestible (or non-biodegradable) can of beer.

That can is key. Korea is imagined as someone's toxic waste dump. Criticized by the U.S. and the World Health Organization for bungling the situation, the authorities plan to spray Seoul with the evocatively named "Agent Yellow." (Not surprisingly, Bong is affiliated with South Korea's left-wing Democratic Labor Party.) The movie's climax conflates an anti-Agent Yellow protest, a police riot, and the family's inspirational last stand. Bong is a generous director. Although The Host has a tendency to repeat its routines, the filmmaker typically ends each scene with some offbeat comic lagniappe that serves to reground the fantasy in some quotidian morass.

As amorphous as its creature, The Host has an engaging refusal to take itself seri ously—it's no War of the Worlds and yet, however funny, it is hardly camp. The emotions that The Host churns up, regarding idiot authority and poisonous catastrophe, are too raw—too close to disgust. Is revulsion a form of revolt? Bong's disaster farce ends with a long shot of the frozen Han. There's the sense of something new brewing in the sludge—namely his movie.

 
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