The buzz of 2006's Cannes festival, Bong Joon-ho's The Host offers all sorts of visual surprises.
"Old people have always said that an animal which kills a human should be torn limb from limb," says Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong), "That it's a human's duty to do so." He sighs, and looks up at his young granddaughter's photo, one of many arranged in a makeshift memorial where hundreds of mourners have gathered. Behind him, a man in a yellow hazmat suit appears, about to announce what you already know: the "animal" that has grabbed young Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung) is not only deserving of being torn limb from limb, but it's also the product of human corruption, greed, and arrogance.
You know this because The Host (Gwoemul) has started -- about 20 minutes before -- much like other creature features. A sinister-seeming U.S. military pathologist (Scott Wilson) working in South Korea instructs a startled minion to begin dumping formaldehyde into local waters. The toxin infects the environment, producing a ghastly mutation -- part fish, part reptile -- that, just before Hee-bong's speech, emerges from the Han River with a perverse combination of grace and awfulness. Galumphing up onto the riverbank, it surprises a crowd of hapless citizens assembled for nice-day strolling by the water. At first, they don't quite comprehend what they're looking at, and they gawk. Within seconds, however, they're on the run, the creature in hot pursuit. Screaming, flailing, falling -- the humans don't have a chance.
Hilarious and horrific, the scene offers up a range of grisly-campy delights, all indicative of the film's relentless ingenuity: the camera careens with the fleeing crowd, pausing to show brief instances of violence: a girl under headphones unaware that she's about to be snatched up, an assortment of bodies torn up, chewed, or tossed into the water, a dog gnawing at his owner, whale- and swan-shaped paddleboats bearing stunned observers of the turmoil. Hyun-seo's father, the sincere manchild Kang-du (Song Kang-ho), rushes into the fray to rescue her. When he loses track of her and takes another child's hand by accident, the mistake at first seems almost comic, his stunned face so unbelieving you anticipate he'll find her in an instant. But just as suddenly, the scene is tragic: in the mouth of the monster, she disappears into the Han.
Kang-du soon learns, from that fellow in yellow hazmat suit, that he may be infected by the monster's insidious "virus." The man doesn't have an exact set of facts to dispense, but instead tells the gathered mourners to watch a conveniently located TV, where they will see an "explanation." This turns out to be a public service sort of notice, full of vague, anxious-making hype, the media and government colluding in crowd manipulation. Like his father, unemployed brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il), and champion archer sister Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na), Kang-du distrusts this official story. But it hardly matters: deemed infected, he's dragged off to a hospital, where he submits to tests and hangs his head, despondent over his loss and feeling guilt to boot.
And then Kang-du gets a cell phone call from Hyun-seo late at night. She screams like a horror movie girl, her terrified voice echoes, the call must be a nightmare. But Kang-du is certain she's alive (his insistence to a security guard conjures yet another haunting, weirdly beautiful image, his face pressed against plastic sheeting that's supposed to keep his infection quarantined). And so he and his family set off on their own, knowing the government is unable, not to mention quite unwilling, to take up the search.
As much as their ensuing adventure follows conventional narrative turns (familial bickering and bonding, resistance against self-serious authorities, wily appearances and serial-climactic showdowns with the monster), The Host offers all sorts of visual surprises. These in turn pay homage to past films as much as they innovate. Bong Joon-ho's influences are many and eclectic, as he described them in an interview with this writer, both obvious (Godzilla, Jaws, Alien) and unexpected (John Carpenter's The Thing, Sally Mann's photographs). Shadows are alternately protective and ominous, city streets familiar and strange. The sheer agility of the camera -- whether tracking the ever-mobile monster or probing children's faces -- articulates a delicate sensibility, an attention to details of composition and color.
The creature in particular is characterized by an uncanny grace (its slipping off the bridge into the water is an oddly breathtaking image, both gruesome and ethereal), while its human opponents remain manifestly odious. The humans fight amongst themselves, the poor folks -- who include the homeless as well as the food vendor Hee-bong fend for themselves in ways at once honorable, cunning, and necessarily devious. They must contend with an onslaught of bad news: TV journalists report U.S. displeasure with Korea's inability to handle its own crisis (shades of SARS, complete with surgical-masked pedestrians huddled on street corners), the police remain treacherous and unthinkingly aggressive, and an American doctor (Paul Lazar) comes equipped with mad-scientist instruments for brain surgery.
As the hapless humans scurry about above ground, Hyun-seo remains determined below. Deposited in a lair filled with other live and dead bodies, she describes it to Kang-du as "like a really big sewer." Looking small in her schoolgirl's plaid skirt, she emerges from shadows, her face smudged with grime, determined to combat the creature. At once poignant and grim, clever and resolute, she's not so much vengeful as she is charming and courageous. She's an ideal hero for the moment.