The inconvenient truth about illegally dumping toxic chemicals down Korean drains is that years later, a giant mutant sea monster will rise up out of the polluted waters of Seoul’s Han River to terrorize the populace, sure as Godzilla rose out of 1950s H-bomb testing in the South Pacific. The silver lining to the toxic cloud is that Bong Joon-ho, the playful and stylish director of The Host, knows his Godzilla, his B movies, his pop culture, and his video culture, too. His wildly entertaining saga should become the hip, thinking-person’s monster movie of choice.
The thing that gobbles in a bravura display of CGI is an indiscriminate eater of human bystanders. But the river monster wraps a tentacle around Park Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung), a pretty schoolgirl, with save-for-snack delicacy, leaving her dysfunctional family — father, grandfather, uncle, and archery-champion aunt — to chase after the slimy, amoral beast. When the filmmaker isn’t eliciting honest empathy, he is sneaking in lively, absurdist commentary about SARS, mass hysteria, health-care bureaucracy, consumerism, and American-Korean relations: For instance, it was an arrogant U.S. Army doctor who ordered his Korean assistant to pour the poison down the drain; officious health officials quarantine frightened citizens on the unproven grounds that they have been infected with a virus; and TV crews roam an auditorium filled with families mourning their eaten dead, zooming in on scenes of grief. The picture makes for a very unstreamlined two hours. But while The Host sometimes idles, it never drags. Instead, it wriggles with bioenergy and cinematic life.