Here's a name movie fans need to remember: Bong Joon-ho. The South Korean director's infinitely enjoyable creature-feature "The Host" marks him as one of the most entertaining filmmakers working today.
He begins with the basic monster movie conventions - goon from the lagoon develops a taste for humans - and blows them out of the water with phenomenal action, horror thrills, political satire and cockeyed character dynamics. It's a dream fusion of "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Jaws."The Host" features a sympathetically messed-up family at center stage. There's the long-suffering grandpa (Byun Hee-bong), whose snack shop sells grilled calamari to folks picnicking on the banks of Seoul's dirty Han River. His slacker son (Song Kang-ho) and smart schoolgirl granddaughter (Ko Ah-sung) help out. His two more responsible but equally flawed children are a national archery champion (Bae Doo-na) who fumbles under pressure, and a recent college grad (Park Hae-il) in search of a career, or failing that, a good stiff drink.
The film doesn't make us wait with tantalizing glimpses of the monster and a 90-minute delay for the full reveal. The credits are hardly over before we get a glorious full-daylight money shot of the beast. It resembles a giant, ferocious, amphibian catfish, designed with a painful-looking spinal curvature that explains why it's so ticked off. In a whirlwind of destruction, it thunders down the riverbank, swallowing humans who moments earlier were feeding on its cousins' tentacles.
It's scary, yet the kind of frantic action scene that sweeps you away with the sheer elation of movement. One member of the family is snatched by the sea beast, and when it becomes clear that a rescue might be possible, the others pull together to save the day despite impossible odds.
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Bong's film builds tension and hilarity by putting one absurd hurdle after another in our everyfamily's path. There's the bedlam following a disaster, compounded by bureaucratic attempts to keep the situation under wraps with a quarantine, racketeers who charge top dollar to supply the searchers with the gear they need, mad scientists who want to drill a hole in one antihero's skull, and considerable interpersonal backbiting.
The ragtag team's character-defining moments between the monster attacks are handled with wry humor and spasms of deep sadness. The fatalities come from unexpected directions, and they hit cast members Hollywood would never kill off. Characters who ought to be heroes are squashed, while others who should be background extras become vital players.
Bong delights in breaking the rules of the genre, and it's futile to resist his perverse glee in chaos and disorder. Who else would have the nerve to turn a mass funeral into a blackly funny pratfalling melee of overwrought sorrow? But Bong knows that outrageous scenes work only when they're contrasted against a baseline of reality, and he guides his ensemble through honestly affecting performances. "The Host" works on so many levels simultaneously that it's like getting a film series for the price of one. You must, must, must see this movie.
**** out of four stars.