It may still be too early to say, as other reviews have yet to roll in, but I have a feeling that Bong Joon-ho's The Host will be this year's Sha Po Lang -- at least as far as the ScreenAnarchy crew is concerned. And suffice to say, this review will be yet another singing the movie's praises. Simply put, The Host is a rock-solid genre film filled with scares and (perhaps more importantly) laughs, a decent amount of political and social commentary, solid visual effects, and last but not least, strong characters whose plight is instantly involving.
Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) is the rather dim-witted proprietor of a food stall along the banks of the picturesque Han River. He's not a bad guy, just a little slow on the uptake, and very lazy, something his father constantly berates him about. The only thing that Gang-du really cares about is his teenage daughter Hyun-seo, who really can't stand her old man. Life seems relatively normal -- until a giant mutant salamander emerges from the river and begins wreaking havoc. In the ensuing chaos, Gang-du loses track of Hyun-seo, only to see the creature snag her with its tail before plunging back into the river.
The Korean government, under pressure from the U.S. military and fearful that the monster might be the harbinger of some virus, immediately locks everything down and moves everyone who was at the river to a containment facility. Gang-du and the remainder of his family -- his father, brother (a student protester turned alcoholic salaryman), and sister (a world-class archer) -- are constantly given the runaround by the authorities, who are frankly bungling the whole case and don't really give a damn about anything except saving their own skins. All hope seems lost until Gang-du receives a faint cellphone call from Hyun-seo, who apparently survived and is trapped in a sewer somewhere along the Han.
The authorities prove to be no help whatsoever, and so the family -- a motley crew, to say the least -- decides to take matters into their own hands and rescue Hyun-seo. Meanwhile, the Americans and the WHO have decided to take over the Koreans' attempt at containment, bringing in a new super-weapon that may destroy the monster... and much, much more.
The Host is currently breaking all manner of box office records in South Korea, and it's easy to see why. It's big, loud, and has plenty of flash. The monster effects are quite good, but are not absolutely perfect -- which actually adds to the appeal of the film. There's something about the way the monster moves about on the screen, the way its various tentacles and orifices function that doesn't seem biologically feasible, but it looks really damn cool and creepy, and that's all that really matters.
The movie has several great "jump out of your seat" moments, and Bong Joon-ho (whose previous film, Memories Of Murder, also won great acclaim) is great at setting up tension and delivering the shocks. The scene where the monster emerges from the river is fantastically done. Unlike most monster movies, which keep the monster's true appearance under wraps until the final reel, The Host shows the beastie wreaking havoc early on, and in broad daylight to boot -- something that genre conventions say you never do, but it works brilliantly here, ramping up the tension right away and delivering the same old shocks in a new manner.
Of course, no decent horror/monster film should be without subtext, and The Host is no different. Of course, there are plenty of jabs at the military, specifically the American military. The movie's opening scenes depict hazardous chemicals being dumped into the river at an American military officer's behest, which references an actual event that took place in 2000. However, the Korean authorities are depicted as bumbling, inept, and insensitive, refusing to track down even the slightest of leads in order to save face.
Directly opposing that is the Gang-du's family. In the outset of the film, they can barely stand eachother and are about as dysfunctional as it gets. The only thing that they have in common is Hyun-seo, and when she's taken away from them, they begin putting aside differences and band together. The movie goes to great lengths to flesh out these characters, giving us just enough back-story for all of them that we actually care for them when they begin drawing lines and making plans to take down the beast, as well as giving all of the characters "hero" moments that allow them to shine.
It's a simple thing, really, but so many genre films neglect the human element of the story and instead choose to focus on the monsters, carnage, explosions, and other gratuitous elements, with often-deleterious results. The Host's incredibly strong focus on the family element gives the film a depth that no effects budget could ever achieve, injecting an already solid genre film with plenty of humor, heroism, pathos, tragedy, and thrills.