We’ve looked at zombies and we’ve looked at vampires, two of the West’s most terrifying and pervasive monsters of horror lore. If we are going to be honest, however, their death tolls have got nothing on the classic Asian giant monsters. From Godzilla to Mothra, if its mass destruction you want, then Asian cinema has got what you crave. So what does a modern look at the classic trope look like?
Let take a look at the South Korean giant monster flick, The Host.
I would like to just go ahead and warn any readers out there in the English-speaking world that if they just type “the host” into Google, you get a Stephanie Meyer book and film, which I apparently had read once but totally forgot it existed, probably because my brain was trying to protect itself. You have been warned.
The Host opens as most giant monster movies do, with an American doing some incredibly stupid and dangerous shit that is about to get everyone around them killed. In this case, it’s commanding a lab tech to dump literal tons of formaldehyde down the drain and into the Han River because, and I kid you not, the bottles were dusty. Cut to six years later when a horrifying fish monster decides today’s the big day its going to see the world and eat a bunch of it. At the same time we meet the Park family, with the dead-beat father, hard working grandfather, hard-drinking hard-fighting uncle, super archer aunt, and Hyun-Seo, the middle school aged girl. And, you guessed it, Hyun-Seo gets captured in the chaos of the attack. As such, her entire family sets out to try and save her before the monster inevitably makes her a meal.
Typically, monster films from Asia deal with unstoppable mass destruction that came from, you guessed it, World War 2. Godzilla is meant to represent the terror of the atomic bomb, large and looming, coming out of nowhere and killing all indiscriminately, and set off by greedy Americans. However, this movie doesn’t strictly follow the mood typically set for these kinds of films. It’s a mix between the dramatic and the comedic, a balance that is hard to pull off but works incredibly well. There’s one scene wherein the whole family is ugly-crying at the memorial, in what is otherwise a very serious moment, falling over themselves in grief which makes it, in my opinion, a fantastic scene.
In terms of the acting, the cast is pretty top notch. I only know Song Kang-ho from The Good, the Bad and the Weird and Snowpiercer but he is just as funny and smart in this as he was in those two. Go Ah-sung plays the daughter Hyun-Seo (and also Song’s daughter in Snowpiercer so fun coincidence there) is particularly great considering how young she is in the film. Both the grandfather and drunk uncle do excellent jobs, and whole the English speaking characters are kind of wooden, the additional side characters do a great job. And there is, of course, the incomparable Doona Bae who does not get enough screen time, but it just goes to show that she’s always been a badass and was hands down my favorite part of the film.
I have to say that I am not enamored with the ending. After defeating the giant fish monster, they are able to pull out Hyun-Seo’s body out but, of course, they are too late and she is dead. I get that having her live would have been too happy an ending, but it just seems unfair after all that struggle and hardship. The father ends up taking in a little boy and raising him as his own, which is nice to for the kid, but it does feel like a sort of cheap happy ending.
The movie, while having its comedic moments, really did have some good scares. The monster does pop up at random times to frighten the living crap out of everyone, including the audience. There are moments of great tension, especially because the monster is essentially incomprehensible — no clear motive, and even the way it eats and stalks prey isn’t always clear. There are tons of moments of sincere and honest tension, as well as scenes of real palpable drama. The screenwriter clearly has a good idea of how to make a well-balanced entertaining film which, while not exclusively horror, is one of the best monster movies I’ve ever seen. I would say that I would like to spend more time with the family to really build on the movie’s heart, but it still holds up well as is.
The cinematography is, for what I assumed was a parody film, was actually quite good. Like with all good monster movies, there is the thrill of waiting for the monster to pop up at any moment, the atmosphere is gloomy and dark, the cuts are quick and often disorientating in the best way. As far as modern monster movies go, it manages to stand out I will say when the monster is shown very close up or in slow motion, it suddenly looks terrible — the slimy, creepiness is all gone and replaced with a bubbly, untextured blob of grey slime. This, of course, happens more towards the end of the film when you’re already invested, so at least they did it smartly.
Overall, The Host is a fun and well-crafted adventure with a lot of laughs but missing some of the heart that would have made it a truly wonderful film. As it stands, I would say that it represents some of the best of the Asian monster genre, and perhaps is the best way to measure how much this allegory has grown and changed. Though the real lesson here is that no matter what, Americans make terrible decisions all the time and consistently endanger people’s lives.
– Good cinematography.
– Great acting.
– Great monster conception.
– Unsatisfying ending.
– Poor CGI towards the end.