On almost every level, there's never quite been a monster movie like "The Host." Egregiously subverting its own genre while still delivering shocks at a pure genre level, and marbled with straight-faced character humor that constantly throws the viewer off balance, much-hyped big-budgeter about a huge mutant tadpole that emerges from Seoul's Han River is a bold gamble that looks headed to instant cult status. Broader biz, especially beyond East Asia, will depend heavily on reaction to its world preem in Directors Fortnight, and some re-editing would better equip it for specialty distribution in the West.
Film is set for a wide, late July release in South Korea, followed by an early September roll-out in Japan, which provided almost half of the reported $10 million coin (huge in local terms). Helmer Bong Joon-ho ("Barking Dogs Never Bite," "Memories of Murder") has not ruled out some tweaking in the meantime. Reaction at its gala midnight screening on Sunday, heavily populated by Asiaphiles, was a mixture of admiration and discombobulation.
Beyond all the fancy visual effects -- way above the rocky level of recent Asian fantasies like "The Myth" and "The Promise" -- in tone the picture falls somewhere between the social parable of "Dogs" and the character-driven, offbeat drama of "Memories."
Pic, which is not even in widescreen, will be best appreciated by auds who just go with the quirky flow rather than expect regulated, U.S.-style thrills. In its mix of genre-bending, political asides and character emphasis, there are strong parallels with Larry Cohen's 1982 cult classic, "Q: The Winged Serpent."
Prologue, set six years ago at the U.S. Army Base in Yonsan, Seoul, has a South Korean flunky ordered by his Yank boss (Scott Wilson) to empty gallons of aging formaldehyde into the sink -- and therefore straight into the Han River, which flows through the capital. Clearly ludicrous English-language scene (which would benefit from revoicing) signals Bong's lack of interest in making a science-heavy blockbuster -- there's little emphasis on the usual government-military paraphernalia of such movies.Cut to October '06 and locals are enjoying a day out on the banks of the river. Among them are convenience stall owner Park Heui-bong (Byeon Heui-bong), his idle doofus son, Gang-du (Song Gang-ho, the cop in "Murder"), and the latter's daughter, young high-schooler Hyeon-seo (Ko A-sung).
When something is spotted hanging beneath one of the bridges and then sliding into the river, the locals pelt it with cans and snacks. But, Gang-du and Hyeon-seo are more interested in watching the televised National Archery Championships, in which her young aunt, Nam-ju (Bae Du-na, lead in "Dogs"), is competing.
First appearance of the monster is aces, catching the viewer off guard after a slow build-up. Combo of visceral energy and offbeat humor, plus Lee Byeong-woo's pounding drum music, is impressive, and as the creature finally scoops up Hyeon-su with its tail and swims off,the stage is set.
When the Park family assembles later at a funeral parlor, pic again throws the viewer as their grief turns to physical in-fighting, with Gang-du's younger brother, jobless graduate Nam-il (Park Hae-il), blaming Gang-du for Hyeon-su's death.
The government claims the creature is host to a horrifying, unknown virus and fumigates the area. Following the death of a Yank soldier, the U.S. military decides on "direct intervention" by using a secret chemical weapon, Agent Yellow. Meanwhile, Gang-du & Co., convinced by a cell phone call that Hyeon-su is still alive, escape the government quarantine and hunt down her and the creature. Script's political content is more occasional barbs than a fully developed subtext. Bong maintains the focus on the Park family, with Gang-du lumbering through the drama with assists from onetime student revolutionary Nam-il and expert archer Nam-ju. Problematic central section could do with 15 minutes of tightening. Final half-hour, however, is aces as all the threads connect, with no simple heroes and a kind of sad, messy triumph, plus a barbed coda.
Perfs are more than fine with especial kudos to Ko as the plucky Hyeon-seo, local star Song as the working-class slob, and Bae as the sportswoman.
Visual f/x, supervised by Kevin Rafferty ("Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace") and largely done by San Francisco-based The Orphanage, are a slick meld of CGI and animation, while always reminding the audience that, at the end of the day, the creature is only a movie monster.
Camera (color), Kim Hyeong-gu; editor, Kim Sun-min; music, Lee Byeong-woo; production designer, Ryu Seong-heui; costumes, Jo Sang-gyeong; sound (Dolby Digital), Lee Seung-cheol, Choi Tae-yeong; visual effects-animation, The Orphanage (San Francisco); visual effects supervisor, Kevin Rafferty; special creature effects, Jang Heui-cheol. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight), May 21, 2006. Running time: 118 MIN.