Nothing frightens us more than the dark, said the legendary Hollywood producer Jonathan Shields; so if you’re shooting a horror movie, get rid of that extra in the moth-eaten cat suit, turn down the lights and let the encompassing shadows creep up and scare people. Sage advice, if your budget is low and your thrills psychological. And yet, though some dread things really are better left to the imagination, having migrated there from the murkier corners of the heart, others lead public lives and demand to be out in plain view. Prehistoric beasts awakened by nuclear bombs, hideous colonizers from outer space, birds of a small-town America so blandly pretty that it could kill you: These are monsters from the social order, not the id, and therefore must come into daylight.
So it is with the huge, bellowing, umbrella-fanged, people-eating, humpbacked amphibian marauder that stars in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host. Give it an audience, and this slithering colossus will perform upside-down back flips while hanging from a bridge, or flourish its tail with teasing, lewd gestures. Making its debut at midday in a popular riverfront park, the showoff runs up and back through the crowd, providing multiple viewing opportunities to the throng that’s trying to escape it and offering a marvelous spectacle to commuters riding by on an elevated train. Whether this hyper-steroidal tadpole enjoys giving such a performance, I can’t say; but I feel Bong’s pleasure in showing it from many ingenious angles, in many acts of exuberant athleticism.
You, too, are expected to take pleasure in the display, which is half the point of devising a coming-out party that’s so public in nature, and so uproarious (in both the common and literal senses). The other half of the point is to establish that every resident of Seoul, Korea, knows this monster is abroad. Yet the authorities–which ultimately means the Americans–ignore the obtrusively large threat, preferring to hunt small things: the microbes they insist the beast is spreading and the few hapless, silly humans who are presumably infected.
Not being one to force political interpretations onto a film, I will ignore the obtrusively large allegorical possibilities of this story and just call The Host a family movie. Those silly humans are Mr. Park (Byun Hee-bong), the grizzled, old-fashioned proprietor of a concession stand on the Han River esplanade; his three adult children (all of them chronic screw-ups); and his 12-year-old granddaughter, Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung), who scarcely gets to introduce herself to the audience before being swallowed by the monster, plaid middle-school uniform and all.
This engorgement is actually the beginning of Hyun-seo’s story, not the end, since she’s the functional member of the family. As for her elders, you may judge their abilities by the offerings they place before Hyun-seo’s memorial photograph: tokens of failure, all. Aunt Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na), a competitive archer, presents the latest of her bronze medals. Uncle Nam-il (Park Hae-il), once a student radical and now just a ranter, sets down the whiskey bottle he’s been guzzling. Father Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), a pudgy, sleepy goofball with dyed blond hair, doesn’t have even that much to offer. He’s got only tears, plus a used ramen cup filled with coins filched from the concession stand. These are the people on whom Hyun-seo has been forced to rely. Brought together now in an emergency shelter, they weep, wail, get into a four-way wrestling match, collapse onto the floor (in a shot taken from above, the better to show the choreography of the sprawl) and then demand to know what everybody’s looking at.
The Host is many things, some of them icky. Above all, though, it is the story of how these slapstick figures rise painfully to the level of competence, and beyond. Somewhere in the soggy atmosphere they traverse, amid the maze of concrete sluiceways and hospital curtains that Bong so cleverly sets up for them, I glimpsed a suggestion that other Koreans, too, ought to become competent, and stop being so accommodating to foreign bodies lodged in their system.