Correction to This Article
A March 9 review of the film "The Host" in the Style section inverted some characters' names. The review should have identified the food stand owner as Heui Bong Park (played by Heui Bong Byeon), his unemployed university graduate son as Nam Il Park (Hae Il Park) and his other son as Gang Du Park (Gang Ho Song). The young aunt Nam Ju Park (Du Na Bae) was misidentified as a daughter.

When Monsters And Institutions Misbehave

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 9, 2007

The Korean film "The Host" has such a wide range of attributes -- it's a comedy, it's a vivid evocation of a dysfunctional family that comes together in crisis, it's a wondrous homage to the courage of children, it's a biting critique of the government -- that it's hard to recall that it's first and foremost a monster movie.

That's right, one of those by now largely vanished relics from another age, where a big green scaly thing with 300 teeth and at least six jaws comes up out of the water and starts eating us squishy little four-limbers left and right. Hmm, there was a bad remake of "Godzilla" back in the '90s, and before that nothing almost since the '50s, when such majestic claptrap was the norm.

This one starts as most of them did . . . with science gone horribly wrong ! As director Bong Joon Ho has it, an American scientist (Scott Wilson in a cameo) in Seoul orders a Korean underling to pour a stock of aging chemicals down the drain, even though the underling points out that the drain empties into the Han River. Bah, scoffs the arrogant American, "I am not used to repeating myself."

But the film isn't anti-American in any real sense; once it gets going, it mainly chronicles the ineptitude of the current government of South Korea to deal with a crisis without tending toward old habits like totalitarianism, corruption and downright incompetence.

Six years pass and the camera settles on the Park family, finding it a cross-section of contemporary Korean social pathologies. Gang Du Park (Kang Ho Song) tries to hold the family together with the meager sustenance generated by his food stand in a park on the shores of the Han, just across a giant bridge from the gleaming towers of modern Seoul. One daughter (Du Na Bae) is a champion archer with a tendency to choke; a brother (Hie Bong Byeon) is a university graduate embittered by his inability to find work. The oldest boy (Hae Il Park) helps out in the food stand, though he has a disturbing habit of snoozing on the job. Really, only one family member is happy and fulfilled, and that's the beautiful child Hyun Seo (an exquisite performance by Ah Sung Ko; Hollywood, sign this kid up -- she has it !)

I am no expert on Korean sociology, but it's my sense the movie aims to portray the Parks as the rough equivalent of the Clampetts or the Snopeses-- that is, semi-comic proletariat who don't quite get it, are always a little behind the curve, rustic, boobs and slow learners. But all that changes on the day the monster comes.

And boy, does the monster come. It simply leaps, full grown, out of the majestic Han, fast, green and deadly. It looks like the creature in "Alien" on steroids, maybe 30 feet long, with a prehensile tail and a mouth full of teeth. Think of a Tyrannosaurus rex crossed with a sand worm from "Dune" with those mandibles hinged from all angles and lined with teeth, and you get the idea. Add a few mutated arms and flippers to give it the grotesque suggestion of nature's biggest mistake. This bad boy isn't a city crusher like the various beasts and its of the '50s but eats so many people that it's a huge crisis, which freezes the Korean government.

In fact, there's as much government-bashing as there is monster-mashing in "The Host." Seoul's friendly paramilitaries arrest all the people who've been "exposed" to the creature but do nothing beyond that. In the old '50s movies, there was a characterization of benevolent science and benevolent government who quickly mobilized forces and efforts, unified the country, and dealt with the crisis. Nothing like that happens here. Nobody talks, nobody listens, there's a sense of slow-motion panic. And it falls to the Parks, who deal with the situation.

That's because Hyun Seo has been kidnapped by the creature; the movie is chiefly an account of how a failed archer, an unemployed engineer, a food stand clerk and a slow learner escape from the clutches of powers that be, penetrate the mystery of Hyun Seo's disappearance, and deal with it heroically, resolutely and creatively.

It's a the last thing anyone ever expected: an old-fashioned monster movie with a heart.

The Host (119 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for "creature violence."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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