By Vic Holtreman
Short version: Although The Host is unusual, unpredictable and at times funny, it's undercut by a running time that is way too long.
I'll start off by saying that this movie won't be for everyone. As a matter of fact I think that some people will really love it while others will wonder what all the fuss is about. If you're a fan of Asian horror and monster movies this one will be right up your alley. On the other hand if you're not a fan of the genre you'll be alternately entertained, bored and entertained throughout the film.
The film opens with what I would have to call a sterotypical "bad American" character: a doctor instructing an assistant to pour dozens of bottles of very old formaldehyde down the sink in order to dispose of them. He insists, despite the assistant pointing out that it will all end up in the Han River, which flows all around the local city. The doctor dismisses the comments, almost seeming like the devil. Really odd and no further explanation given as to why he didn't want to dispose of the chemical properly.
The film then cuts to a couple of fisherman wading waist-deep in the river who come across a small and apparently gross-looking (we never see it) creature that they speculate is some sort of mutation. Cut to four years later where we meet the main characters of the story. We have a grandfather who runs a food stand and his blonde son Gang-du, who by all appearances is a prototypical slacker. It turns out that Gang-du has a daughter (maybe 12 years old) named Hyun-seo. She's disappointed that her dad did not show up for Parent's Day at the school, with her inebriated uncle showing up instead.
I didn't really know what to make of Gang-du... I was torn between thinking he was just a doofus and that he might be geniunely retarded. He sleeps in the middle of the day, eats food off of the customers' plates before serving them and offers a beer to his daughter. He comes across as almost child-like throughout the movie and to be honest I found him a bit unsettling.
His father (the grandfather who owns the food stand) sends him out with a new plate of food for a customer when we see everyone being drawn to something hanging off a bridge in the distance, which then drops into the river and comes close to shore while still underwater. At first the folks are intrigued, taking wild guesses at what it might be, when it lunges onto shore and havoc ensues. The creature is pretty cool looking, although very obviously CGI. Although someone in a scene is wearing headphones instead of an Ipod headset, the dangers of being oblivious to your surroundings become apparent. :-)
An American guy and Gang-du decide to help some people trapped in a large trailer, and even try attacking the creature. This was another jarring aspect of Gang-du, who up until now could barely run without tripping over his feet and here takes on the selfless role of hero. Eventually he goes back for his daughter and things do not go well.
Supposedly the American young man who faced the creature has come down with some sort of deadly virus, which the government says infects anyone who has come into contact with the creature, or anyone those people have been in contact with. At a memorial for the victims, government types in hazmat suits show up to herd everyone to a secure hospital location. This is where we meet the aunt and uncle of the girl, each with their own issues. This is also where there's a scene with an very odd combination of sorrow and humor.
Minor spoiler alert..........
The girl, Hyun-seo is not dead but only captured. The rest of the film revolves around the family trying to escape and avoid the authorities in order to find and save her. Because her father has what seem to be mental problems, no one takes him seriously and they have to go off on their own. In the search is where we get much of the emotional drama of the film, and despite Gang-du being a few cards shy of a full deck, we see the depth of love he has for his daughter and how nothing will stop him from finding her. Despite the issues his brother and sister have with him, they put those things aside to concentrate on finding Hyun-seo.
The Host starts off like an almost goofy riff on Godzilla movies, and gets less humorous as it movies along. There are subtexts concerning the government, and the American government in particular which seemed kind of wierd to me and may even have been taking a shot at our involvement in the war in Iraq. Kind of a "we screwed up but we can't own up to that so we have to keep pretending the original situation is valid" thing.
In any case I found it to be overly long and found my mind wandering a bit. Now that's not to say it wasn't good, because overall I thought that it was by virtue of the characters' depth in the film, their relationships to each other and the performances. I also liked the fact that it really wasn't predictable like so many U.S.-made monster movies. I just found the "government is evil" plot somewhat illogical and a lot of the scenes far too long.
So, if you're a fan of Asian cinema I think you'll enjoy it, but if you're a typical viewer with U.S. movie-induced ADD who doesn't like subtitles, you may not enjoy it so much.