Director: Bong Jong-ho
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Byun Hee-bong, Park Hae-il, Bae Doona and Go Ah-sung
With Parasite Bong Joon-ho garnered international acclaim and popularity, even conquering the Academy Awards which have historically been elusive to foreign language films.
Despite its unprecedented success Parasite was, in the context of its directors’ career, simply another evolutionary step.
The storytelling themes and filmmaking sensibilities Bong Joon-ho displayed with Parasite were not unique to his most recent film.
He has been exploring issues of class divide and political satire for his entire career, particularly within his 2006 monster movie The Host.
Monster movies have a long history of using their giant rampaging horrors as some societal metaphor.
But rather than risk complicating the plot or theme with some simplistic one to one allegory, Bong uses direct messaging regarding his wider cultural commentary and incorporates it as an essential part of the story.
The film was, in part, inspired by a true incident in which a Korean mortician working for the US military in Seoul was ordered to dump large amounts of hazardous chemicals into the Han River.
The Host was inspired by a true incident
The scandal provoked anti-American uproar in South Korea, and is recreated in The Host as the cause of a mutated creature that emerges from the river to wreak havoc.
It is this initial monster attack where The Host immediately reveals itself to be a stellar example of portraying large scale destruction.
The panicked mood is instantly palpable from the way Bong captures the ensuing destruction from a strictly subjective point of view.
There’s a terrifying sense of helplessness as the camera remains constricted to seeing the monsters destructive rampage from afar, powerless to gain any clarity on what is happening.
When the camera does finally take the main characters close to the creature, that wide expanse suddenly becomes agonizingly claustrophobic.
The creature’s size and gruesome features are used to full effect in establishing an inescapable nightmare.
The scene may be chaotic but there’s a concise sense of purpose to each piece of action.
However, The Host is not just an exercise in carnage.
The emotional core of the film comes from its protagonists, the Park family, a group caught within the very centre of this catastrophe.
Just as their view of the monster was subjective, so is their plight of dealing with the aftermath.
The Host is more than just a monster movie
It’s in their efforts to navigate the endless string of bureaucratic red tape that Bong places his jabs at government inefficiency and media sensationalism.
Much like Parasite, these moments of commentary are as pointed and as direct as possible, yet also never distract from the central plot.
It remains consistently engaging and well-paced throughout, never losing focus of its driving force.
Nor does it lose sight of its emotional weight, constantly tying the monster’s rampage into the personal safety its main characters.
There’s also something to be said for how freeing it is to see a monster movie defy conventions of where and when its central horrors are typically seen.
The first attack takes place in broad daylight, with long unrestricted views of the creature.
It creates a subconscious impression that not even the rules of movie tropes can protect the characters from the giant amphibian, that Bong’s filmmaking is capable of presenting the terror in any environment and from any distance.
The creature itself is a brilliantly rendered terror.
Like the rest of the movie, it feels purposeful in its design while retaining a distinct sense of chaos.
There’s something about its portrayal that feels reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s depiction of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, capable of death and destruction but still treated as a living animal.
It’s a mixture of horror and social satire
Perhaps that is because, like Spielberg’s film, the animals itself is simply a force of nature.
The antagonist of the story is the cooperate system that gave birth to it.
But perhaps the biggest storytelling achievement of The Host is its tonal range.
Its ability to merge a sense of propulsive horror with intricate social satire.
It’s strangely hilarious at times and traumatising suspenseful at others, nuanced in its commentary but also wonderfully cathartic in its climactic standoff.
The actors have to convey that same tonal range in their performances, which they all achieve to terrific results.
Even in the most emotionally bleak moments of grief and loss, they elicit a sense of dark humour with the messy pitifulness of their plight.
Having collaborated with Bong Joon-ho on Memories of Murder, Snowpiercer and Parasite, Song Kang Ho is an actor operating on the exact same wavelength as his director.
The Host demonstrated what Jong-ho could do
As darkly humorous as these tonal shifts may be, they provide some much-needed levity to a story that is, in the broadest terms, about a random group of innocents paying the price for a giant conglomerate’s failures.
It’s a theme that Bong as explored throughout his career, culminating in 2019 with Parasite.
A vision that was refined and shaped by his fantastic earlier works such as The Host.
What do you make of this review?
Have you watched The Host? If so, let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
And if you enjoy listening to film podcasts, why not check out Small Screen Radio wherever you get your podcasts!