Jaws is not about shark attacks. Bonnie and Clyde isn’t about robbing banks. The Host, Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 monster movie, is not about an attack on Seoul by a giant mutant fish. Of course, I didn’t know that when I first popped the movie into my DVD player back in 2007. All I knew was that I’d enjoyed Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy recently and was curious about Korean cinema. I love a good horror movie and The Host was getting rave reviews, so it was a natural choice. Boy was I in for a treat. With Oldboy and its Shakespearean plot, I thought I was seeing a one-off cult hit. While watching The Host, I realized that Korea is one of the most exciting countries in movies today. Since then, I’ve seen myriad films of the so-called Korean New Wave and have come away impressed with their ability to breathe new life into stolid genres by throwing them off kilter. And for me, The Host, with its off-the rails genre-bending interpretation of a monster movie, made me fall in love with the cinema of a whole country. For that, it will always have a special place in my heart.
I mentioned earlier that The Host is not really about a mutant fish but the movie does feature a massive fish monster tromping around the environs of the city devouring scores of people. At least I assume it’s derived from a fish. Really, it looks part fish, part lemur, part chameleon, and all nightmare. On the surface, The Host has the setup of a traditional monster movie. A freakish mutant beast emerges from the Han river, and terrorizes Seoul. When the monster abducts Hyun-seo [Ko Ah-Sung], her family, led by her hapless father, Gang-doo [Song Kang-Ho], must pull together to rescue her. The synopsis doesn’t do the movie justice. The Host also features a family drama about a loving but inadequate father redeeming himself before his family. At times, it’s a conspiracy thriller involving a plot by the US military, in collusion with the Korean government, to test out a new weapons system. Other times, the film is a straight up horror flick that veers towards disaster movie territory. Sometimes it’s a goofy physical comedy. Sometimes it’s a jet-black comedy. Sometimes it’s a tragedy. The movie is as hard to define as the monster at its heart, and that’s its strength.
The Host is an odd melange of genres and themes and moods that, improbably, works to create something greater than the sum of its parts. From moment to moment, you have no idea where the film’s going to go, and in the end, it leaves you completely satisfied. That’s what I love about The Host. It takes something staid like a monster movie, combines it with scraps from all sorts of other genres, and evolves a film that’s thrilling and fresh. In fact, that’s what I love about modern Korean cinema in general. Its new generation of auteurs, including Park Chan-wook, Kim Ki-duk, and of course Bong Joon-ho, among many others, take the standard tropes of movies and mash them together into something unpredictable and new. Over at least the last two decades, Korea has become one of the most innovative countries in the world for popular cinema. The result is a whole host of films that, on the surface look like their mainstream counterparts coming out of Hollywood, but is pushing the art of popular cinema forward into uncharted territory.
Hollywood’s been feeling a bit stale recently. The big budget films coming out each year feel like they’re increasingly predictable rehashes of old material. We have the Marvel juggernaut, the abortive DC and Universal Monster universes, and masses of sequels and prequels and reboots and offshoots. Some of these movies are entertaining enough, but they I certainly wouldn’t describe them as innovative. I wish that Hollywood would look to movies like The Host for inspiration. You can take the bones of a monster movie and graft on the best elements of other genres, and end up with a film that is at once absurdly entertaining, emotionally resonant, and fresh.
Every few weeks in the news, I’ll see a piece about how, with the perpetually increasing entertainment options available to us, the movie theater is falling by the wayside. But maybe it’s not that movie theaters are being crowded out by other entertainment. Maybe it’s that popular cinema in America has become boring. Maybe it’s that everyone’s watching TV instead of movies because that’s where people can experience what’s innovative and new. The Host, then, might be seen as a way forward for popular movies. Innovation and popular entertainment can go together. The old can be made new again. Perhaps the way forward for Hollywood is a mutant fish monster. All I know is that there are some movies that are so unexpected that, after your first viewing, they stick with you forever. I didn’t walk into The Host expecting to be blown away by it, but it’s unconventional take on the monster movie took ahold of me and never let go. That’s pretty impressive for a movie starring a big ugly fish.