Is it time to bring back the giant monster movie? Given the dismal state of the world at the moment and the general amount of fear and hopelessness in the air, the time couldn't be better. The next question, then, would be: what do giant monster movies have to do with current events? Just about everything, it turns out. The first two giant monster movies, The Mysterious Island (1929) and King Kong (1933) coincided with the Great Depression. Perhaps audiences found it cathartic to pin their invisible troubles on a visible beast. Giant monster movies took a breather for a while until the 1950s, when looming threats of atomic energy and Communism sent ordinary citizens into fits of terror. A virtual army of giant beasties stomped and swam forth from drive-ins and Saturday matinees all through the decade, from the beloved: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Them! (1954) and It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) to the wretched: Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), Earth vs. the Spider (1958) and The Giant Gila Monster (1959).
Japan added their smash-hit Godzilla franchise, spawning dozens of movies and various spinoffs. In the US, Godzilla was just another giant monster movie, and was released in 1956, edited, dubbed, re-titled "King of the Monsters" and riddled with new footage of American actor Raymond Burr. Of course, Hollywood chipped in with its big-budget American version in 1998, but times here were fairly good (at least in retrospect) and the movie failed to enter the zeitgeist. However, in 2004 the original, unedited, subtitled Godzilla opened for its 50th anniversary re-release. Critics in honest-to-goodness newspapers reviewed it and found it excellent, including an all-out rave from David Sterritt in the Christian Science Monitor, and positive reviews in the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. (Only Roger Ebert turned up his nose, while turning down his thumb.)
Part of this was that the improved Godzilla, indeed, turned out to be a very good film, but the other part is that it was impossible to watch the film in 2004 and not relate it to real life. All of this points directly to the new giant monster movie by Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, The Host, which caused a stir at Cannes, became the highest grossing film in Korean history and has been proclaimed an official masterpiece by Cahiers du Cinema. Certainly it helps that The Host is an exceedingly well-made film, a spooky knuckle-biter with genuine moments of heartbreaking genius. It begins with a flashback to a callous lab technician ordering a flunky to dump dozens of vials of formaldehyde down the drain, which leads directly into Korea's Han River.
The lazy, sweatpants-clad Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) runs a snack stand by the river. Unfortunately, he mainly sleeps with his face planted between the lollipops and chewing gum. Sporting oversized cheeks and a triangular nose, Song also appeared in Bong's masterful previous film, Memories of Murder (2003), in an almost totally reversed performance; he actually appeared years older in the earlier film. We soon learn that Gang-du is a widower and a single dad, raising his crafty daughter, Hyeon-seo (Ko Ah-sung), all on his own. When she complains that her cell phone is not fit to be seen in public, he reveals -- in a funny and touching moment -- a ratty popcorn bucket full of loose change, all saved in an effort to buy her a new phone. Gang-du's father, Park Heui-bong (Byeon Heui-bong), owns the stall and does his best to make sure that the fried squid has the proper number of tentacles when served.
While serving snacks, Gang-du notices a throng of people staring at something under the nearby bridge. It looks like a giant, hanging sac. Suddenly it drops in the water. Bong's camera swings around, capturing Gang-du's passive face, and swings around again as it casually captures the giant beast, a kind of mutated squid, climbing onto the bank and galumphing toward us. It's an astonishing moment, perhaps the greatest "monster reveal" moment ever shot. The monster manages to capture Hyeon-seo, which brings out the entire Park family. Gang-du's sister Nam-ju (Bae Du-na) is, of all things, a professional, competing archer, and his brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il) is a kind of suave troublemaker, a college graduate unable to land a job in modern Korea. Fortunately, Hyeon-seo manages to phone her father from some unknown location near the river and the search is on. Unfortunately for our heroes, their search becomes complicated when the government decides that the monster is also carrying a fatal disease, and quarantines the entire river area.
If The Host were a documentary about the horrors of modern life, audiences would nod gravely, sit through it with a sense of righteous duty and then move on. Bong's supreme achievement is that he has made his many messages -- unemployment, the state of food, pollution, mob hysteria, government reliability, military arrogance, etc. -- fun. Beyond that, it's actually quite a dense film, with many focuses. And so Bong has achieved a deft juggling act as well as an enormously skillful film with just the right touches of humor and pathos to balance its horrors. Indeed, Bong seems to understand that the sight of a giant monster isn't really enough to scare audiences these days, and so the monster is never the main focus. It's never meant to be; instead it's a wedge driven between the comfortable aspects of life and the terrible ones. The monster reminds us how truly good we have it, but also how bad things really are if we remember, if we're not too scared, to look.