I f there’s one thing to be gleaned from the sensational Korean horror film The Host, it’s that our cinema’s most celebrated auteurs need to make more marauding-giant-monster movies. The genre is so fabulously elastic! The Host packs a lot into its two tumultuous hours: lyrically disgusting special effects, hair-raising chases, outlandish political satire, and best of all, a dysfunctional-family psychodrama—an odyssey that’s like a grisly reworking of Little Miss Sunshine. The movie is built like a formula grade-B creature feature, yet the loony-tunes passions of its characters seem to melt and warp that structure before our eyes. The final product is as weirdly misshapen as … the marauding giant monster itself.
What is that thing? Sort of a mandibled squidlike reptile—but that makes it sound as if you could diagram it. It has many moving parts. It eats people but has to regurgitate the bones. It’s mean, it’s ugly, and it’s American—insofar as it seems to have been born of formaldehyde dumped into the Han River at the command of a military scientist played by Scott Wilson, a specialist in granitic Yankee dementia. The director and co-writer, Bong Joon-ho, does not depict our military presence with too much enthusiasm. Not only does the American-spawned creature wreak havoc on Korean leisure activities but also the virus it apparently hosts triggers a lateral chamber of horrors—an authoritarian roundup (overseen by the U.S.) of people exposed to the beast and the deployment of the noxious chemical “Agent Yellow.”
Worse—for the audience’s purposes—is that the military interferes with the quest of the pudgy, dyed-blond narcoleptic wastrel hero, Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), to rescue his adolescent daughter, Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung), who is carried off by the monster but manages to call her dad on a cell phone from amid the corpses (future meals) splayed around its sewer lair. In the unstable society of The Host, family is the only thing you can rely on, and Hyun-seo’s is barking mad. Her mother decamped shortly after she was born. Her uncle (Park Hae-il) is a perpetual student who has never gotten over the pro- democracy riots of his youth. Her aunt (Bae Doo-na) is the oddest bird: a jittery near-champion archer—brilliant until it’s time to let the last arrow fly.
Korean directors get a charge out of pushing things to extremes. In The Host, there’s a bizarre overhead shot of Hyun-seo’s family (including her grandfather, played by Byun Hee-bong) writhing on the floor in grief over her supposed death: Estranged from one another, they weep and howl in separate spheres yet with equal levels of intensity. They’re pitiable—and laughable. A lot of The Host is on that emotional-circus continuum—scary, funny, and upsetting, like the hero’s brush with neurosurgery courtesy of Paul Lazar as a nut-bird American doctor.
In the end, though, this is a real horror movie. It’s hard to shake off the first sight of the creature in the far distance, hanging from the side of a bridge like some kind of pupa, then dropping into the water and gliding toward shore (to the oohs and ahhhs of the dopes on the bank, who throw food to it). When Hyun-seo becomes the mother she never had to a homeless orphan who’s still alive when he’s dumped into the monster’s bloody pit, The Host leaves the realm of its campy modern counterparts. But then, despite cartoonish flourishes, it has never functioned at the level of movies like Tremors or Eight Legged Freaks or even Jurassic Park. This is a portrait of a country’s deepest anxieties, which just happen to be distilled into a mandibled squidlike reptile. It has the tang of social realism.
Horrific as it is, The Host is a frolic next to James Scurlock’s documentary Maxed Out, which tells the bone-chilling, bloodcurdling, hair-raising story of a country (guess which one?) that’s up to its eyeballs in credit-card debt. The causes are various, among them pipe dreams of affluence (cue Robin Leach) and falling “real” wages. But the insanity is chiefly the upshot of what Scurlock calls “predatory lenders”—banks that shower us all with card offers but target especially the riskiest prospects, the ones with a bad history and “a taste for credit.” See, the less chance you have of paying off your balance at the end of the month, the greater the potential profit. It’s a topsy-turvy—and potentially fatal—way of keeping an economy afloat, but hey, lenders are making out like bandits.
Maxed Out features interviews with mothers of two college kids who took the bait, ran up what must have seemed like insurmountable debts, and hanged themselves. They are long buried, but the mail for one still brings credit-card offers. Then there is the late-middle-aged woman who hid her gambling debts until her husband—following the advice of good-guy radio host (and born-again Christian) Dave Ramsey—ordered a copy of his credit report. The day before it arrived, she bought a few dollars’ worth of gas and disappeared with her car—very likely into a nearby river, which her family scans regularly (as the water level drops) for a radio antenna sticking up.