The Host, which boasts the tag-line of being South Korea's highest grossing film ever, will probably make very few dollars in the United States. While Mel Gibson's latest subtitled venture, Apocalypto, fared decently, this trend is unfortunately not the norm for action movies with subtitles released in this country. The Host is easily the finest monster movie to be released in the United States in years: the shots are exquisitely rendered, the acting is immaculately idiosyncratic and indicative of Korean cinema, and the monster itself (lest we forget) is refreshingly unsettling and at times unnervingly terrifying.
Korean director Joon-ho Bong at the outset of The Host taps into the eclectic Korean cinematic sensibilities. Family comedy, stark horror elements and social commentary mingle in the first half hour or so, all with artistic flair. Bong elevates most aspects of his film with some surprisingly innovative uses of an ominous creature, while still maintaining a link to the characters that are experiencing the trauma. Perhaps Bong's greatest contribution to the genre is his insistence on keeping the monster, after having been seen in all of its grotesque glory early on, out of focus, partially hidden and reclusive. In doing so, Bong shows that simply using the monster to startle the audience is no longer necessary: an unsettling haze of unknowing keeps the creature in the minds of the characters, as well as the viewers.
Unfortunately, The Host suffers from a choppy script that jars with the aesthetics of the film. The plot, which concerns the after-affects of a rampaging mutant amphibian and a family's efforts to reclaim their youngest member back from the creature, is easy enough to follow. There are numerous plot diversions, however, and the uneven pacing and alignment of them creates a sense of uneasiness that only the monster should be giving off. In addition, problems such as the blatant lack of a military response to the creature's slaying of numerous South Koreans arise in the film.
The script is also overstuffed with criticism of the government and of science's obsessive striving for pat answers. These concepts might have worked had they been woven into a smoother tapestry, but Bong visibly struggles to do so. The Host isn't crippled by its script, but what could have been a flawless allegory for western hubris is more of a bitterly rumpled kerfluffle against the system, wedged into a finely crafted creature flick.
The Host has an elegance that is strikingly Korean. Chan Wook Park mastered it in the third installment of his revenge trilogy in Lady Vengeance, and Bong in turn has done the same. At moments throughout the movie, the grotesque and terrifying are interchanged with a subtly artistic sensibility. Regardless of its occasionally forgivable plot problems, The Host injects artistic flair while staying consistent to what a monster movie should be: highly entertaining. Bong maintains a level of palpable unease over easily dismissed shock value, and the character dynamics ring true throughout. Bong has crafted a memorable step in Korean cinema, and, thankfully, a fresh look at a genre which has lost its caché in the era of torture-horror films.