The Host (2006)
While a South Korean monster comedy might seem a contradiction in terms, The Host proves itself both unique and of its time, a mocking commentary on the depredations of toxic waste in South Korea and the government mistreatment of its own people.
The film opens with an American military scientist instructing his South Korean assistant to dump bottles of formaldehyde down the drain, where it will eventually flow in the Han River. Many years later, a deformed fish-monster, mutated from the toxic waste, crawls from the river and runs amok, killing and consuming. The film zeroes in on the Park family who run a noodle stand by the Han. The monster grabs Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung) and drags her down into the river, while her horrified father Gang-du (Song Kang-hu) and grandfather Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong) look on. But the nightmare is only beginning: Gang-du and his family must face off against government officials, the American military, and even Korean businessmen to escape from a government containment facility to search the sewers for Hyun-seo.
Rather than a straight monster movie for the 00s, The Host veers into comedic territory whenever it has the chance, mocking the incompetent government forces and increasingly dangerous attempts to eradicate the monster through biological warfare. Like many of the kaiju and Atomic Age monsters, The Host‘s monster is brought to life by scientific hubris and inattention – and was, in fact, inspired by an actual incident in 2000 when a Korean mortician working for the Americans admitted to dumping formaldehyde down a drain and poisoning the river. The efforts of the Park family to recover their daughter are met with absurd bureaucracy and manipulation, to the degree that the family actually resorts to criminals to escape a government facility. The heroes are all members of the underclass – shop owners, criminals, poor children, students, and the homeless – while government, military, and business forces (American and Korean) are at best sycophantic and at worst diabolical.
The Host is a deceptively complex monster movie. Monstrosity itself is neither good nor evil – the monster is simply an animal attempting to survive, and the Parks a family who don’t care about government bureaucracy and only want to rescue their child. Monster movie tropes are subverted and new ones introduced, making the film unpredictable and phenomenally entertaining. I only wish I spoke Korean.
The Host is happily available to watch on AMC’s Shudder streaming service.
(Incidentally, director Bong Joon-ho was also behind the spectacular Memories of Murder, a very different kind of horror film, more than worth checking out).