All of Bong Joon-ho’s movies are about monsters, some more literally than others. In “Memories of Murder,” the monster is the boogeyman, ripped from the headlines and hiding in the darkness. In “Snowpiercer,” the monster is the abstract force of capitalism, rotting us from the inside out as we eat each other to survive and maintain some semblance of order at the end of the world. And in “The Host,” the wild 2006 genre mash-up that firmly established Bong as a creative force of nature and afforded him the cache to make “Mother” in 2009, the monster is… well, it’s an actual fucking monster, with slimy skin and a prehensile tail and a sweet tooth for small children.
The special effects haven’t aged particularly well, but the creature — which Bong and his team modeled after Steve Buscemi’s feral performance in “Fargo” — is nevertheless a marvelous creation. An overgrown sewer chimera whose mouth has so many strange folds that you’re still trying to make sense of them all at the end of the movie (it’s more important that a CG villain be curious than convincing), the monster is scary and silly in equal measure, unpredictable to the bitter end. You never know where it’s going to pop up, or what might be the next thing to come retching out of its multi-layered maw. And yet, the most unpredictable thing about this gnarly digital wonder is that “The Host” actually lets us look at it.
At the time it seemed perfectly natural that Bong was swinging for the fences and making a monster movie that followed in Godzilla’s thunderous footsteps, that took advantage of new technology to comment on the uncertain future of an Asian country that was still trying to add up the aftermath of its most recent war. But, in the years since, Bong has revealed himself to be a master of misdirection, and his subsequent films have galvanized a body of work that hinges on the mordant genius with which he uses genre tropes like sleight-of-hand.
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In that light, it now seems kinda bizarre — if not downright counterproductive — that Bong would make up an actual monster when the rest of his films offer such compelling evidence that monsters are real. That, in a decision that has come to define the film, he would put the monster front and center during the first reel.
What does he want us to see during the famous opening sequence in which he subverts decades of creature feature tradition by ringing Buscemi (just roll with it) into full daylight and revealing the thing in its all of its slickly rendered glory? Why is “The Host” so quick to (forgive me) normalize its beast, framing it in so many elegant wide-shots that it soon becomes just another part of the landscape? Is the monster just a mucus-covered McGuffin to set up a darkly dysfunctional comedy about a lower-middle-class Korean family trying to rescue their youngest member, or is the film’s vague and scattered political commentary meant to coalesce into something more specific than “it’s better to trust the black sheep of your family than to ever believe in what the government tells you?”
From its pointed prologue (which builds off a real-life incident to broadly criticize the toxic effects of America’s lingering military presence in Korea) to its heavy-handed allusions towards WMDs and the Iraq War, “The Host” has never been a particularly subtle movie. And that’s always seemed like part of its charm. Per Bong tradition, its characters are complete idiots who tend towards slapstick, an assessment that’s as true of Song Kang-ho’s bumbling burnout of a hero as it is of the shady official who shows up in a hazmat suit and promptly falls on his ass. But now — as the special effects start to show their age and it’s easier to see the monster for what it really is — Bong’s masterpiece is finally beginning to reveal its true form.
A lack of subtlety isn’t just one of the film’s charms, it’s also the core of the film’s purpose. This is a story about the sheer brazenness of evil. It’s a story about an evil that pours formaldehyde into the Han River with the snickering delight of a Bond villain, a story about an evil that hangs from the underside of the most prominent bridge in all of Seoul before it decides to strike.
It’s a story about an evil that doesn’t even pretend to be anything else, about state forces who immediately pounce on the opportunity to punish their country’s most vulnerable citizens, and about creepy scientists they fly in openly brag about how they’re going to lobotomize Song’s character just to shut him up. It’s a story about how a people are only as strong as the protection they offer the weakest among them, Bong’s screenplay starting in a riverside food shack and going full Dickens by the time it introduces two lost orphans into the mix.
If “The Host” has only continued to grow into its role as the defining monster movie of the 21st Century, it’s not because of the film’s conspiratorial flair or its digs at the media, it’s because it’s the only recent monster movie that doesn’t feel like a metaphor for something else. Sometimes, the danger really is that obvious. Sometimes — if I can indulge in a crazy what-if scenario, here — a racist President who promises to shit on the Constitution, violate the Emoluments clause, strip people of their rights (and their healthcare), and run the world’s most stable democracy like an autocratic family business isn’t just one side of an argument, but rather a clear and present danger that’s coming for you and the ones you love. Hypothetically. Sometimes a bipedal fish nightmare modeled after Steve Buscemi is just a bipedal fish nightmare modeled after Steve Buscemi.
As the film makes viscerally clear during the long slo-mo shots that define the incredible scene where its creature runs along the riverbanks and stuffs random people into its maw, the hardest part about surviving something so extreme is recognizing that it’s real and responding in kind. The world may be a more cynical place than ever, but our relative stability has made it difficult for people to believe in monsters, or to be prepared to retaliate against them when they emerge from the darkness fully formed. It hardly matters that the creature in “The Host” doesn’t look as impressive as it used to, it only matters that we see it for what it is. Because how the hell else are we supposed to fight back?
Fortunately for us, Bong Joon-ho is about to unleash another movie.
“The Host” is available to stream on Netflix Instant.