I'd rather have "The Host" than 100 neo-martial arts films, but I hope it isn't endlessly copied. When foreign filmmakers try their hand at one of our specialties like the monster movie, the results can be hilarious. (Think of the French movie "Brotherhood of the Wolf.")
Directed by Joon-ho Bong, "The Host," which sold more tickets in South Korea than any other film, is on one level a big-budget killer-animal flick like "Jaws" and "Jurassic Park." On another, it's satirical, making fun of the whole genre. So we laugh with "The Host" most of the time rather than at it.
Even the origin of the unusually large creature is pretty funny. In the movie's first fateful scene, two scientists shutting down a military morgue in the late 1990s argue over what to do with all the excess formaldehyde. The ranking American orders it dumped down the drain. His Korean counterpart warns that the dangerous chemical will pollute the Han River. It's a big world, the American says, in a telling moment regarding our image abroad "Dump it." His subordinate is aghast, but follows orders. No funnier metaphor about the plight of the rest of the world suffering under our capricious whim exists on film, at least not one featuring what is to come: a monster amphibian.
The nasty critter grows from a guppy to the size of an 18-wheeler in a few years. We glimpse shadows and hints, but before we see it, we meet the Park family, who will become its nemesis. The family led by a bumbler (Kang-ho Song), his father (Hie-bong Byeon), his daughter (Ah-sung Ko), and a brother and sister (Hae-il Park and Du-na Bae) owns a food stand by the river. The lunch cart has a strong aroma of irony considering what befalls them. Before it strikes, the beast is spotted hanging by its tail from a bridge. Enormous, it is adept in the water, diving down from its perch and leisurely swimming up to the shore. Dad, a rumpled fellow who falls asleep a lot, tosses a Korean beverage out to it to see what will happen. Beast contemplates beast. More irony ensues when the crowd continues tossing snacks. But as the creature gallops toward them in a surprise attack from the flank, they discover it is more interested in snacking on them.
"The Host" unfolds more naturally than most American movies of this sort because the beast comes to the people, rather than the other way around. You don't even have to go in the water; terror will crawl out to get you if you litter. The first big panic scene, with screaming citizens running for their lives, might disappoint people who've paid to see computer-generated fireworks. A large, well-known California studio handled the special effects for "The Host," but they seem a bit average and spotty compared with similar movies made here recently.
What "The Host" lacks in believable pixels it makes up for in staging. The reactions to the monster are very realistic. Some people don't notice what's coming until it's too late. Others just think it's wild. At one point, we watch people in an elevated train watch the action in amazement just as we have. And in another funny aside amid all the flailing bodies, Dad grabs his daughter by the arm and takes off, only to realize he grabbed the wrong girl.
The daughter, scooped by the beast's tail, disappears in the murky water. Fearing the worst, the family attends a mass grieving ceremony only to get a call from her cell phone. After several scenes in the hospital worthy of the Three Stooges, the family escapes a quarantine to look for her in the river's sewers. Here's where the grueling search mirrors an audience member's tolerance for Korean humor.
One by one the searchers get separated. Grandfather is killed, and Dad is recaptured by the authorities, who probe him with instruments of all types. During these moments one wonders what's worse: being caught by a slimy monster amphibian or by the U.S. military. Or is it worse to be sitting there wondering which it's supposed to be?
"The Host" is a strange movie, sometimes brilliantly original, sometimes laughably derivative. Is it making fun of Koreans? Americans? Being eaten? It's probably making fun of itself too, and I hope people pick up on it. We don't need three sequels and 100 copycats to kill the vibe. (R) 119 min. *** S