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It’s hard to sum up The Host. On one hand, it’s a monster movie, complete with a grabby, stabby mutant creature that gives everyone a hard time. On the other hand, however, the film comments not only on environmental and international topics, but on family dynamics and personal growth. This is not a film you watch lightly.

At a cool two hours run time, The Host takes its time with the plot, but not in the way you’d expect. There’s a short intro that gives us the set up for our monster — evil American scientist orders his employee to dump a crap-ton of chemicals down a drain that leads to the Han River — and a few moments to cultivate dread, before the big reveal.

Right around this time we get a chance to meet our heroes, the Park family. The main character is Gang-du, a late-twenties/early-thirties man who works at his father’s snack stand, and who even his young daughter thinks is a loser. Gang-du is down by the river when the creature appears and starts rampaging its way through the happy-go-lucky Park crowd. The best way to describe it is a sort of fish lizard, but giant, and very fast and growly. It takes out a bunch of people in a pretty well-done scene. My favorite instance is a close-up of a girl on a park blanket. She has her headphones on, listening to classical music. Casually, she picks her nails, and in the background, first a few, then a lot of blurry people start running by. Noticing them, she frowns, looks up, turns around and — bam! Monster grabs her head with one of its long-fingered hands and drags her along after it. It’s the perfect lead-up of “hmm, whaaat?” to “holyshitmonster!”

Among those grabbed is Hyun-seo, Gang-du’s daughter. He watches in despair as the creature snags her with its tail and drags her into the water with it. It swims to the opposite bank and disappears.

The Park family mourns the loss of Hyun-seo while going through a series of doctors’ offices and blood tests, as the news reports the monster is the host (get it?) of a deadly virus that kills those it comes into contact with. But in the night, Gang-du gets a spotty phone call from Hyun-seo saying she’s in a sewer, before it cuts out.

Naturally, they (Gang-du, his father, brother and sister) break out of the hospital and go on the run to search the sewers, hunt down the creature and save Hyun-seo. This is not easy, and the family is fairly bumbling most of the time, but still they crawl through the grime and slime of the sewer, before an encounter with the creature wounds it and kills the father. A despairing Gang-du is captured by the authorities, while his brother and sister flee.

Meanwhile, Hyun-seo has been surviving, though little more than that. She’s trapped in a concrete trough in a sewer that’s too steep to climb out of. She hides in a small tunnel when the creature comes, and salvages bits of food, clothing and cell phones from the dead victims that are dropped there. Soon, a little boy is dropped who is still alive, Se-joo, who Hyun-seo takes under her wing.

As Gang-du and his siblings deal with the authorities, there is background plot about the U.S. coming in and wanting to use “Agent Yellow,” a chemical that kills all biological life within a certain radius. This draws some pretty obvious parallels with biological warfare, particularly that used in places like Vietnam, and adds an extra serious undertone to the film.

As the family searches for Hyun-seo, they slowly become stronger. First individually, becoming more competent as their focus narrows on their goal, and then together, as they all reach the climax of the film and the showdown with the creature.

At the end, you have the creature, the U.S. government ready to pour Agent Yellow over everything, protesters of Agent Yellow (with signs saying “Free Kang-doo,” a subtle snap at protests using people as symbols without understanding their whole story/circumstances/actual names), and the Park family. During this, Hyun-seo and Se-joo are swallowed by the monster, which is brought down by Agent Yellow. Gang-du pulls them out of the creature’s mouth, but it’s too late for Hyun-seo. In rage, Gang-du and his siblings finally kill the monster, and at the end, as he reaches down to Se-joo, it’s revealed the boy is alive.

There is so much bleakness in this movie, despite a lot of action and some random goofy parts that I believe are mostly cultural inserts of humor to lighten this bleakness (people fall down a lot). The kids in the hole get slimier and more desperate as time goes on, the creature is nasty and Gang-du is not treated well by the authorities (there’s a non-anesthetized brain surgery scene that’s pretty freaky).

The environmental and political messages are clear. Protesting doesn’t stop the dumping of Agent Yellow, even as we learn in an earlier scene that the virus is a fabrication to justify the use of the chemical (typical American shenanigans). When the monster appears, the chemical douses everyone, killing several protesters and bystanders. Hyun-seo, despite her bravery, dies right before being united with her family.

But there is the little hint of happiness at the end. The last scene is Gang-du and young Se-joo in the snack shop. It’s winter and snowing, but they’re cozy inside, surrounded by food. Gang-du sets the table and wakes up the little boy. In the background, the news discusses the U.S. government’s investigation of the mishandling of the incident, but the two turn it off. Their meal is more important. Together, they eat in comfortable silence as the camera pulls away.

This is definitely a good movie, though as I said, not a light undertaking. But the characters and their arcs are interesting, and I’d say it’s a pretty solid monster movie. I’m not a fan of those necessarily, so that’s saying a lot. It’s worth watching at least once. And if you’ve got Korean snack food to go with it – even better.

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