April 13, 2010
 

The Host: Seoul Sole

The Host

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By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor

What an unpredictably sly and grueling exercise this South Korean monster-from-the-deep turns out to be. Consider its opening scene--a chilling exchange in a morgue in which the American boss (an aged Scott Wilson, one of the two young killers in Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood") orders his Korean assistant to pour what looks like an entire warehouse of toxic formaldehyde down the drain and into the Tan River which runs alongside the Seoul waterfront. One surmises this may be a modern reference to Hollywood's sci-fi monster mania of the early 1950s ("The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms," "It Came From Beneath the Sea") in which our atom bomb testing that accompanied U.S. saber-rattling with Russia and Korea loosed all kinds of dormant monstrosities from the ocean floor.

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The Host

The typical sea monster and mutated octopus from that era never had much locomotion. Like their land-based kin King Kong and Mighty Joe Young, they had mass but little speed. "The Host" changes the equation. This thing stands on its tail and hind legs like Charlie the Tuna, dripping slime and skulls from its computer-generated maw. But then its stumpy little legs start churning its 45-foot bulk along like a hellbound train. It propels itself up onto the waterfront pier and starts scampering down the promenade and leaping across the frontage, leaving half the population bloodied and broken.

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Without the wily instincts of Steven Spielberg's raptors or the secretive cunning of Ridley Scott/James Cameron/David Fincher's space-bound Aliens, this speedy demon is little more than an eating machine. But it happens to target a family of waterfront vendors led by a dysfunctional comic dad, a daughter who's a competitive archer, and two button-cute children who the monster will carry off and deposit in a below-ground bone yard for safekeeping. The dramatic arc of "The Host" lies in whether Dad will rescue the kids before the invader is destroyed by flamethrowers (as the mutant ants in Los Angeles' underground tunnels were annihilated in the 1954 thriller, "Them").

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In U.S., Brit and Japanese productions like "The Giant Behemoth," "Gorgo" and "Godzilla, most of a city could perish as long as the children didn't. This was an inviolate rule that even the "Alien" series hasn't dared to break. But in this South Korean escapade, if 37-year-old director Bong Joon-ho got the message, he clearly decided to ignore it. That's probably why less than 40 people were at the first showing of "The Host" in Lincoln Center in Manhattan--mostly older single men, incidentally-- while the IMAX theater upstairs was selling out all six opening-day showings of "300" to thousands of rowdy, baggy-pants truants, messenger boys and multi-generational families of all sizes and shapes.

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"The Host" is not an easy novelty to respond to. It's more of a continuous stunt than a scripted and conventionally acted film. The 115 long-shot CGI effects (through Orphanage Films in San Francisco) are sleek and accomplished, and the horrific closeups with 10-foot sculpted live models have a lot of the grisly, stomach-turning acrobatics of "Alien Resurrection." The actor playing the bleached blonde stumblebum father huffs and fumes and weeps, and you begin to hope he'll sacrifice himself for the children who've vanished down the monster's gullet. But he won't do that.

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In Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds," scores of rural and urban New Jersey families are sucked up into the destructive Martian machines stomping through their crops and farms and sidewalks--but we never question for a minute whether Tom Cruise and his daughter (Dakota Fanning) will be among those who suffer and die. The system doesn't work that way and never has. "The Host" dares to upend the system, and has managed to buy a mainstream release and a favorable lead arts review in The New York Times. You can tell the distributor is nervous about the picture, because the two-minute trailer that played for weeks before its opening was devoted almost entirely to masses of Koreans fleeing the unseen menace, which was shown only in flashcuts--standard creature-feature previewing. "The Host" refuses to conform to the conformity of its coming attractions as well as its genres, which certainly makes it--as the song goes--one singular sensation.

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