Like most monster movies, South Korea's hit The Host (Gwoemul) starts off with a chemical spill. Next thing you know, there's a giant critter wreaking havoc in the streets and crushing everyone in sight. But The Host is more than that: much more. Too much more.
This mixed mutant bag is part creature feature, half family dramedy, with a dash of slapstick, mixed together with social commentary, and rounded out with hugely theatrical CGI-centric action bits. Some of this works brilliantly… the rest, not so much. Clocking in at nearly two hours, this beast is too far big for its britches. (When even one of the characters in the movie falls asleep, and five minutes is devoted to the other characters talking about that, you know you're in for a long haul.)
The disjointedness and excessive running time aside, The Host does do its genre justice for the most part. The layered story focuses mainly on a family of Seoul snack vendors, the Parks. Hie-bong (Byeon Hie-bong) is the granddaddy of 13 year old Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung), who winds up getting abducted by the monster and taken back to its lair — her father, the lazy, squid-scarfing (but good-hearted) Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), gets his butt in gear to save her, aided by his out-of-work brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il) and champion archer sister, Nam-joo (Bae Du-na). For about the first 40 minutes or so, we're with the Parks or the monster; but then several subplots start to pile in, paving the way for distraction and dissonance.
And speaking of paving, there are some superb skirmish sequences showing the monster running through concrete and other substance like water, air, and even fire. The CG is very obvious (not much shading or shadow here), but it is very detailed and crisp. The fiend doesn't really have "personality" but it does have a single-mindedness that's entertaining enough, and it even (apparently) has stomach acid that can melt the flesh right off of human bones, leaving the skeletons intact. Nifty!
While I can't say I actually liked The Host, I do applaud it in some of its more unusual, singular narrative choices. Also, the score is noteworthy — Byung-woo Lee, who also did A Tale of Two Sisters and The Red Shoes, was obviously inspired when working on this film. He incorporates tribal-sounding drums with orchestral notes, punctuated by the monster's raucous roars.
The DVD has deleted scenes (yes, The Host could have had an even longer total running time!), and a truly entertaining featurette led by director Joon-ho Bong as he takes a moment to apologize to everyone who was a) cut out of the film, or b) not visible due to shadows, masks, or/and other obscuring elements. It's very funny, and takes a different approach to the usual grocery list of "sorrys"!
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Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson