Not a single Bong Joon-ho film can be described at face value.
The magic of Bong’s movies lurks beneath the surface, offering multifaceted and complex takes on humanity and the destruction we bring upon the planet and one another. One of the best working filmmakers today, Bong immaculately crafts stories where he asks the audience to be active participants while refusing to become too esoteric.
From Parasite’s message of “eat the rich” to Okja’s “Studio Ghibli” take on the horrors of the meatpacking industry to Snowpiercer’s incisive political and social commentary, Bong is never interested in a simple story. Rather, he directs his attention to the stories that require great investigation, and even more so, he disguises these stories as something else to beckon a wider audience.
Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 monster film The Host is no different. As is the case with most of Bong’s works, The Host is a masterclass in balancing shifts in tone with ease, and even 15 years following its initial release, the movie’s disregard for subtlety makes for a beguiling but refreshing watch. Now streaming on Amazon Prime, here’s why you need to watch one of the best sci-fi movies of the 21st century.
The Host takes place in Seoul as city residents deal with the monstrous after-effects of what happens when an American military pathologist deliberately pollutes the Han River.
Led by Song Kang-ho in fine form as a bumbling, buffoonish character Gang-du, the movie follows one family after a mysterious creature attacks and captures Gang-du’s daughter, Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung). Once he learns he still has a chance to save her, Gang-du and his family rally together to face incredibly daunting odds as they try and save Hyun-seo before the monster hurts her.
The horror isn’t the creature itself (the monster has a somewhat goofy design) but the reactions of those witnessing the carnage or being swept up in it. In particular, it’s the faces of Gang-du and Hyun-seo as they realize his error: When the monster attacked, Gang-du grabbed the wrong girl’s hand, allowing the creature to take his daughter. Gang-du must contend with believing he caused his daughter’s possible demise, while Hyun-seo believes that her absentee and childlike father has failed again at being a parent.
At the start of The Host, the villain is a white American (Scott Wilson), and he is gleefully, cartoonishly bad. It’s purposefully broad, and this opening sequence as the man in question demands that toxic chemicals be poured into the Han River sets the tone for the rest of the film.
While the movie utilizes absolute horrors, it also uses black comedy to create a nervous dissonance; we’re never sure whether we’re meant to laugh at these characters or feel deeply for them. Knowing Bong Joon-ho, it’s likely a mix of the two. The film constantly reminds us that humans are often weak and selfish, but that doesn’t mean we can’t empathize with their pain.
A perfect example of the film’s dark humor and empathy is when we see the family come together to mourn Hyun-seo, who they think they lost, at a mass funeral. The four all but crawl over one another to stand by her memorial, sobbing uncontrollably. Words pour out so quickly that it’s nearly indecipherable to distinguish who is talking.
The scene culminates in them falling to the floor and writhing in grief. At first glance, this is a broadly drawn sequence where none of the four family members come out looking like admirable people. It builds even greater sympathy for Hyun-seo, who at only 13 years old seemed to have been the glue to the family and the person each member unconditionally adored. That stark ugliness is also true to mourning, where every emotion is a shade of something unbearable and vulnerable. The movie means to make you uncomfortable, and to make you laugh.
The Host eschews the regular horror format, taking the opposite stance of the Jaws effect where the filmmaker holds back on the big reveal of the “monster” until they build up considerable anticipation. What’s so refreshing about Bong’s take is that it shows a full shot of the monster — as it gracelessly ambles along Han River in broad daylight — in the movie’s first 15 minutes into the film.
A theme of wanton carelessness also persists throughout the movie and leads to devastating moments. Gang-du and fellow bystanders throw cans and other food items at the monster is one example of the casual, pointed littering that takes place. Another instance is when Gang-du realizes he miscounted how many bullets he’d used, which leads to a shocking twist.
Much of The Host’s horror is not due to gore, jump scares, or even the design of its titular monster (which, again, is a largely silly design), but because of how much humanity’s disregard for the planet causes destruction and pain.
Despite the humor (some pratfalls included), The Host comments on the genuinely miserable idea that the many errors of adults, who are supposed to protect young lives, only hurt them. Instead, we watch as Hyun-seo remains resilient, adopting the determination of someone twice her age as she seeks to protect both herself and another boy the monster trapped with her.
Near the end, that tone shifts again as the remaining Park members become more motivated by revenge. Gone are the slightly dimwitted and obtuse family members, and in their place are ruthless individuals with a shared goal. It’s extraordinary how, in these closing moments, Bong Joon-ho can build a soul into a monster while also showing the evolution of its protagonist with emotional weight and dash of humor.
Two all-encompassing themes The Host oozes are regret and second chances. Whether the characters earned the latter is what the movie leaves us wondering, and it’s a question that propels the audience to do just what Bong Joon-ho wants — to become active participants in his stories.
The Host is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.