Six years ago, there was an incident in an American army base situated in South Korea that would have grave repercussions. A lab assistant was given orders to dump chemicals into a drain that led to the nearby Han River by his American superior officer, despite his protests. Now, a businessman trying to commit sucide is standing on a bridge over the river and as he is talked out of it by his colleagues he notices a huge shape beneath the surface - then allows himself to fall towards it. Did he see anything? Is there a creature born of pollution lurking in the river? Could be...
The Host, or Gwoemul as it was originally known, broke box office records in its native South Korea and was notably popular abroad as well. Director and co-writer Bong Joon-ho's follow up to his well-thought-of Memories of Murder, this had a similarly grey look and a mistrust of the authorities, although rather than presenting the powers that be from the inside as before, here he concentrated on a working class family who find themselves the victim of both the giant monster created by pollution and those who would seek to contain the emergency - not always ethically, either.
They don't mess about in bringing on the creature, as after about ten minutes of setting up it is running rampage by the river, chomping on those taking a break there and crucially to the plot, snapping up schoolgirl Hyuen-seo (Kae Ah-sung) and plunging into the water with her caught in its tail. It is her family who are the centre of attention thereafter as her father, Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), something of a misfit with a tendency to doze off, even at times of stress, refuses to believe she is dead. His father leads the charge, and his archer sister and unemployed graduate brother join the cause.
Presumably they are intended to represent South Korean society in the face of a government in the thrall of Americans, because there's a definite suspicion of the motives of the U.S.A. here, and it's interesting that the director should use a traditionally East Asian genre, the giant monster movie, to make his points. Alas, his superbly-rendered creature does not have the personality of a Godzilla, and is more drawn from stock, turning up to terrorise the cast then retreating to its lair on the sewers where it takes its victims, either to regurgitate and leave for later, or to digest.
There's a strain of self-pity running through The Host, a "Why me?" air that defuses the tension and threatens to upset the excitement generated by the CGI behemoth (who isn't really that big compared to others in the giant monster pantheon, barely double decker bus-sized, really). It's understandable that the family should be distraught, but when this is pinned onto a theme about unwanted American influence in their country it begins to grate in a persecution complex kind of way. The U.S. military invent a story that the family are carrying a monster virus which mainly seems to have been introduced into the plot to distract them from their hunt; the writers may have a political point to make, but it doesn't sit well with the heroics. Still, it's enjoyable enough, with a sense of humour and distinctive take on a well-worn tale. Music by Lee Byung-woo.