When a movie begins with a real-world event, it is to be assumed that it has something to say about the real world. When I watched The Host, I had no idea that this was the case. The opening scene, where a mortician with the United States Army orders his South Korean assistant to illegally dump gallons of preservatives down the sink, sending them right into the Han River, is based on a real incident where, well, basically exactly that happened. It’s the most on the nose a monster’s origin has been since atomic testing caused Godzilla to rise from the deep.
Like any great movie monster, Gwoemul (apparently just meaning “monster” in Korean) contains in its flesh a representation of the world’s wrongs. On one level, it calls to attention the inability of the Korean government to protect its citizens. Those exposed to the creature are harassed and brutalized for what amounts to literally no reason, as the virus Gwoemul supposedly carries does not exist. There is a lot of black comedy around the government’s incompetence, with a particularly amusing scene featuring a hazmat-suited agent deciding to let the news explain the virus he is quarantining people for, only to find that the news isn’t currently on that topic.
It also attacks the power that the United States military has in South Korea, as they are responsible for the monster’s existence and their solution to it is to dump more virulent chemicals into the river to kill it. Unsubtly, the USA’s weapon against the monster is called “Agent Yellow” and is shown to have horrific effects on the humans who are caught in its clouds of toxic gas.
Of course, a monster’s no good if it can’t catch the eye, and Gwoemul is gorgeous. While the enviornmental themes of the movie take a back seat to some extent, Gwoemul is still a chemical mutant, and it embodies that concept perfectly. You can’t see it here, but its head is asymmetrical. The side we can’t see in this picture has a single clouded eye, while the side facing us has a similar eye surrounded by scar tissue and a set of what are either tumors or even more deformed eyes. Its back is even more mutated, with what looks like entire fish sticking from its back. In fact, when the monster is injured, a living fish does drop right off of it and begin to flop around! How did that even happen? Is it actually a colony of organisms somehow living together?
Its other features require a little more detail, because they lend themselves well to its incredible animation. This is seriously one of the most well-realized monsters in film, complete with little details of movement and behavior most people wouldn’t think about. First of these features are its limbs. Its front limbs are bigger than its others, and when it’s really running, it sometimes goes fully bipedal, holding the rest of its body off the ground. I love those fingers, flattened and fin-like, and you can see how those are clearly mutated fish fins.
Its second set of limbs is fused with the first at the shoulder, and the creature uses these to capture victims as it charges through crowds. The third set are somewhere between paddles and proper legs, capable of supporting it when it rests on land as well as helping it swim. The most bizarre element of its locomotion is that it can swing around like some sort of horrible monkey, alternating between its tail and its front limbs. It is baffling and horrifying and adorable all at once.
Its mouth is even weirder, a layered, flower-like structure, formed of tooth-ridged petals around a softer inner mouth. Those teeth don’t get a lot of use, because the monster is plenty big enough to swallow humans whole, something you can see it doing right here. It speaks to the attention to detail in this movie that we sometimes see the monster use its tongue to support a body it’s pulling into its mouth. Most of these bodies it later vomits back up in an abandoned sewer it uses as a lair, saving them for later. It is this tendency that drives the plot; the monster captures the main character’s daughter early in the film, bringing the family together to hunt it down when they realize that she is alive.
Speaking of the monster’s behavior, there is a feature that really brings the creature to life, an endearing behavior that brings it from a mere monster to a real-feeling animal. At one point, we see the monster’s behavior when not feeding or otherwise engaged in violence. During a rainstorm, it is caught sitting on the riverbank, head back and mouth gaping open to drink the rain coming down. It’s like any child sticking their tongue out to catch raindrops. It’s brilliant, and even factors into the plot later in a way I won’t spoil.
The Host is a great monster movie with a great monster. I can’t recommend it enough.