Bong Joon-ho’s First Sci-Fi Movie Is Still His Most Entertaining
The real monster is man. But also the big monster.
Few directors can walk a cinematic tightrope like South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho, who excels at seamlessly blending genres. It’s a difficult balancing act, one he still manages to infuse with intelligence and emotional resonance. Whether he’s dissecting class, our relationship with nature, or family dynamics, Bong can move his audience from laughter to tears in close succession. His name may be well known to American audiences thanks to the massive success of 2019’s Parasite, but the director’s entire filmography is well worth a look.
Any of Bong’s films can dazzle, challenge, or move you, but his most unabashedly fun viewing experience is his monster movie masterpiece, The Host, which landed on HBO Max earlier this month. Here’s why this beloved sci-fi classic is worth revisiting — or experiencing for the first time — and what you should know before you start streaming.
The Host begins in 2000 when an American military pathologist forces his Korean subordinate to dump formaldehyde down a drain that will send it into the drinking water of the Han River, a setup based on a real scandal. A mutant creature grows and eventually emerges from the depths to wreak havoc on the populace — albeit only after people start pelting it with a variety of objects.
Unlike most monster movies, Bong doesn’t hide the creature in the shadows until a last-minute reveal. Instead, the amphibious mutant is mostly seen in broad daylight and debuts very early in the story. The monster’s unique look and movement style is riveting. It’s somehow both beautiful and horrific, graceful and clumsy. It’s a fearful creature, but a pitiful one too.
At the center of the crisis is the dysfunctional but lovable Park family. Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) runs the family snack bar with his father, Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong), but Gang-du is a pie-in-the-sky slacker who can’t even be trusted to serve his customers squid without skimming a tentacle. Still, Song imbues him with a humanity that will make you root for him, and he winds up braver than you’d think.
Gang-du’s brother, Nam-il (Park Hae-il), is a university graduate who’s gone from political protester to unemployed alcoholic. Their sister, Nam-joo (Bae Doona), is a nationally competitive archer who gets lumped in with the rest of her family as a loser because she only took bronze. Finally, the heart of this little family is Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung), Gang-du’s clever daughter. When the monster takes her, Gang-du must rise above his squid-stealing ways and become the father she needs.
Bong has described The Host as being more about a kidnapping than a monster, and the rescue of Hyun-seo is indeed the driving force that propels our heroes from one misadventure to the next. These aren’t you traditional monster movie heroes, but as they stumble through the story we laugh with them rather than at them because they’re relatable. (How would it look if your family tried to mount a rescue mission?)
Like some of Bong’s other work, The Host concerns itself with our impact on nature, and there’s also a sharp skewering of America’s relationship with South Korea’s military. But at its core, this is a movie about a messed-up family trying to save one of their own. Who can’t relate to that?