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Monster mash-up

The Host has horror turning Korean

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If there’s one scene in The Host that sums up the movie’s weird blend of humor and drama, it’s when the family mourns a young girl, missing and presumably eaten by a monster living in the sewer system. It’s a memorial en masse with banks of flowers and victim photos, and family members start shoving each other out of the way to get to the girl’s photo, grappling, finally falling down and rolling crazily around kicking each other.

Never seen anything like it. The scene is just absurd, and it’s typical of how The Host mixes and matches its way to tragicomic Frankenscenes: no cod-heroic one-liners, no belly laughs, no chills, plenty of moody atmosphere, lots of disbelieving chortles and a couple of launch-your-Coke scares.

Kang-ho Song plays a shiftless, possibly narcoleptic Seoul food vendor whose daughter goes missing when an enormous mutant amphibian leaps out of the river and goes on a rampage. A rampage survivor himself, he escapes government quarantine with his kindly father, surly brother and champion-archer sister, together forming a vigilante band to confront the monster, which has riverfront Seoul all to itself since the authorities evacuated the area.

Fun stuff, but hard to pin down why. The Host really shouldn’t work as well as it does. It’s got a couple of prize seat-jumpers but not much acute suspense—more like a steadily building anticipation, and indeed there are parts of the movie where you wish they would just hurry up and get on with it. There is almost no gore, but a ridiculous amount of procrastination. There’s a virus-scare subplot that never gets developed and some significant plot holes, a couple of wonky performances and too much attention lavished on Kang-ho Song’s hangdog face.

But somehow these things don’t detract. The Host is pitched so oddly for a monster movie that even its shortcomings kind of harmonize. The CGI monster is pretty good, interacting believably with objects and landscape but retaining a B-movie cheesiness. Basically a giant salamander, it’s borderline laughable, with none of the lurking menace of, for example, the titular beastie in Alien. It proves strangely easy to kill once someone decides to apply himself to the task; South Koreans, unlike Americans, do not confront their monsters with massed artillery. In fact, it’s the monster you almost want to cheer for, hardly malevolent, more just thumbing its nose at Seoul and people generally. There are some beautiful shots of it swan-diving from riverbanks and bridges.

The Host is to monster movies what Ang Lee’s Hulk was to superhero movies, which is to say, not what you’d expect and not for everyone. But if you’re up for something different in the genre, you could do a lot worse than this.

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