The Host (Gwoemul) holds a special place in my heart as the first Bong Joon-ho film I ever saw. I went to see it on the recommendation of a friend who’d already gotten me into J-horror (Japanese horror films). She told me about what was happening in South Korean horror cinema and encouraged me to expand my horizons.
It’s not hard to see why. There’s a lot going on under the surface of this tale of a monstrously mutated fish thing which rises one day out of the Han River and rampages through Seoul, including the Park family’s small snack stand. It scoops up the youngest Park, Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung), leaving her hapless father, Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), and the rest of her family to rescue her. That’s one part.
Then there’s the reason behind the monster: the U.S. military has secretly been dumping chemicals in the river for years. That’s another. Then they lie about it having a “virus” so people will stay away and not discover what they did. That’s another.
Then there’s the satire of South Korean melodrama, especially the scene where the family cries uncontrollably, flailing around, while looking at a picture of the missing Hyun-seo. It’s a level of comedy I didn’t expect.
What I’m saying is this film has layers upon layers, and I’ve only mentioned a few. I could explicate The Host’s unsparing critique of the U.S. presence in South Korea, or its thoughts on pollution, or the family unit, or any number of things baked into it, all day. It’s thought-provoking, to say the least.
The moment I knew it would be one of my favorite monster movies of all times was during the monster’s first attack. The amphibious creature comes ashore one day and runs down the riverbank, causing chaos. The thumping power of its gait reverberated in my chest and left me breathless in the movie theater. I was truly terrified. It’s the feeling I want when I’m watching a creature feature. If that was all I got, I would have been happy. But I got so much more.
The Host made me a fan of Bong, Song, and Korean cinema — not just these talents, not just horror, but all of it. The film is thematically dense and rich, without short-changing any of what it wants to say. Credit goes to the screenplay by Bong, Ha Won-jun, and Baek Chul-hyun, as well as Bong’s expert direction and the acting from all involved. Ko is especially effective as ill-fated Hyun-seo, who not only has to keep herself alive, but comes to care for another young boy the creature also kidnaps to eat.
It’s also easy to see why Bong works with Song so often. Gang-du isn’t very bright but turns out to be the one person who learns the whole story about the military’s treachery. Song is very good at bringing out the sympathetic qualities of his bumbling protagonist.
The film ends on a melancholy, ominous note, so be prepared. Of course, that’s another reason I love it — no Hollywood ending in sight! There’s also so much of Bong’s signature style and thematic interests handled so masterfully here that it’s hard to believe this was only his third full-length feature, too. If you haven’t yet checked out his work, or any South Korean horror in general, The Host is an excellent entry point for both.