Ever since it premiered at Cannes last May, Bong Joon-ho's The Host has been the recipient of some truly glowing festival praise: "the best monster movie in decades" is not at all an uncommon sentiment.
That's over-selling it something fierce (and probably reflects the fact that Proper Critics don't really see all that many monster movies, and don't allow themselves to like the ones they see), but it's undeniable that the film is quite a treat: a near-perfect combination of gore, horror, farce, domestic drama and top-notch visual effects; probably the very best CGI I've ever seen in a movie not made on American money, in fact.
Like most of the great monster films (but not all), The Host is not about the giant creature nearly as much as it is about a small core of characters: in this case the Park family: Hie-bong (Byeon Hie-bong), the owner of a snack shop on the Han River in Seoul; his exceptionally lazy and brainless son Gang-du (Song Kang-ho); his daughter Nam-joo (Bae Du-na), an archery star; his other son Nam-il (Park Hae-il), a college-educated misanthrope; and Gang-du's teenage daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung). The action is centered almost entirely around the adults' attempts to rescue Hyun-seo after she is abducted by the beast after its first rampage.
This does not go the places it would go if this were just a standard Hollywood programmer: a rather tender-hearted, often sorrowful, more often hilarious view on the familial conflicts between generations and between siblings. I really don't know why east Asian cinema has such a monopoly on great stories about siblings, but there you go. The Host is primarily concerned with Hyun-seo's absence, and the ways in which her family tries to save her, working at cross-purposes sometimes, and sometimes working as a team, but always out of love for her and for each other. One of the greatest scenes in the film comes during a funeral service for the victims of the monster's first rampage, when the Parks get into a knock-down brawl even while they weep. It's hysterical (although my description is not), and even though it's broad it's completely honest: they behave like a family with their particular hang-ups might well be likely to act in that sort of moment of stress. They are recognizable people, and their humanity anchors a fantastic movie in the simple and the domestic. That's what makes this much different than a typical Hollywood B-picture, and in a lot of ways much better.
All that said, I don't want to give short shrift to the monster. It's simply a terrific bit of design, really one of the absolute peaks of the art form in the last several years: it has the basic sliminess of a catfish with all sorts of protuberant fins where they oughtn't be, a snakelike, prehensile tail, and a gaping mouth of distinctly, um...there's not a polite way to say that its mouth is a giant vagina, so I'll just be impolite. Oh, don't give me that, there's a long and proud history of movie monsters that are essentially modified genitalia. I'm hardly the first one to notice that the title creature of Alien is nothing but a penis with teeth. Anyway, I don't know quite what to do with such imagery other than note that it exists, and when a giant CGI vagina coughs out multiple human skeletons in one of the most arresting images I've seen in a movie this year, it's a wonderful example of what I think of as the Dayum Effect: a moment in a movie where you stop and stare and say "dayum!" in a slow mock-Texas drawl, because it's one hell of a thing you just saw - good or bad, it's hard to say, but it's somefuckingthing, and you won't get it out of your head anytime soon.
It's a tribute to Bong's skill that he can balance all of these wildly divergent tones and even make them feel like the very necessary components of a whole. It's hard to say whether the comedy is needed to offset the tragedy, or if the tragedy is meant to leaven the comedy, and whether either of those is more or less important than the horror. It all comes together so smoothly that it's frankly impossible to imagine the movie without any strand.
That's unfortunately not the same thing as saying the movie has no dead weight. After the flawless first half hour or so, the pacing gets a little wonky. Part of this has to do with the frequent absence of the monster, although it's not only that - indeed, the film is a rare success in that some of the very best scenes are not "monster movie" at all - a bigger part is that the film seems unsure as to whether Hyun-seo or her father is the protagonist, or if its both of them. And the ending, which is beautiful in its own way, only muddies that. Maybe that's purposeful, but if it is I think it backfired rather needlessly. Either way, that doesn't explain the climactic action sequence in which the Parks battle the creature, a scene with too many false beginnings (I didn't even know those existed) and not nearly the right emotional tenor.
None of that means it's not a completely fine motion picture, because it is. It's genuinely funny, moving and scary all together, and most American movies, whatever their genre, can't even manage one of those at a time