Fresh after the unanimous global reception to Parasite, it is indeed worthy to explore the core elements that constitute the DNA of its director Bong Joon Ho’s filmmaking style. The Host (the title itself is a contrast to Parasite) being one of the director’s earlier works is also based on a real incident where a Korean mortician working for the U.S. military was reportedly instructed to dump nearly 20 gallons of formaldehyde down the drain in a river source quite integral to the Koreans a few decades ago.
But, The Host isn’t very literal in its reference to the incident – it wears a sci-fi mask in this thriller where a monstrous creature, with mysterious origins, spotted near the waters is a cause of jeopardy for the entire city, causing deaths of hundreds. The entire film revolves around a sewer system (where the US military had supposedly dumped formaldehyde into) where the creature dumps the humans it attacks.
The director makes you relate to the far-fetched scenario by personalising the entire incident. The story is told through the eyes of a small-time shop owner Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), who is witness to his daughter Hyun-Seo falling prey to the monster. His helpless father Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong), sister Nam-joo (Bae Doona), a popular archer; and his brother, Nam-il (Park Hae-il) among many residents in the city are quarantined in a closeted medical facility to prevent the outbreak of a virus spread by the monster.
Deeper truths emerge about Hyun Seo’s whereabouts and the virus in this story that remains edgy and poignant. While the director keeps the audience guessing about the origins of the monster, you realise soon that the monster is only a metaphor mirroring the ills affecting the society. It’s largely a reference to the US, highlights its scant care for the environment (about the dumping incident), thereby taking the safety of the Koreans for granted. The film is also a sharp commentary on the inability of the ruling class to take care of its subjects at the direst hour.
The moments in the film where the family of the protagonist is at the forefront are shot with such sensitivity. An ailing father, in the middle of a crisis, pleads his other children Naam-joo, Nam-il to treat their sibling (Park Gang-du) with some dignity. Two children Hyun Seo and See Jo, unaffected by the fact that they are at the mercy of the monster, dream about staying in a new home together, savouring the best of the local cuisine after the escape. There’s a sense of hope, despair at the same time.
The thrills centred around the monster are arresting. A large share of the credit needs to be given to the CG team for not crafting the creature like a mere larger-than-life computerised fish and making a genuine effort to integrate it into the atmosphere of a scene seamlessly. Those with a deeper understanding of South Korean politics and key incidents that shaped the lives of its residents over the years will certainly savour the film (more than the global viewer) and make a better sense of the satirical tone on the establishment through the narrative.
The ending of the film is largely about poetic justice, where the average citizen takes charge of the society without resorting to any help from the government. The identity of Nam-joo as an archer is wonderfully utilised in the finale. Actor Song Kang-ho (who was also part of Parasite) masterfully lends an underdog quality to his character, who is often the butt of all jokes in his immediate society. Byun Hee-bong as the family patriarch is equally impressive, but the heart of the film belongs to one of its younger actors Go Ah-sung as Hyun Seo, who comes up with a heartfelt, vulnerable performance.
Before a global cinema-buff rushes to watch The Host, it’s advisable that they make an effort to understand the context of the film. Although a story indeed needs to work on its merit sans any supplementary material, The Host turns out to be a more rewarding, layered experience provided one did a customary reading of the incident that it’s based on. This one may not be as universal, metaphorical or impactful as Parasite, but is nevertheless a film that holistically reflects the society that it hails from.