Bong’s films, especially Memories of Murder, start as one thing and end as something completely different. In that 2003 stunner, there’s a steady movement of tone from a blundering buddy-cop comedy to a bleak and suspenseful rumination about injustice and uncertainty. The transition is so imperceptible that a first-time viewer might be surprised how well the trick has been pulled off. The Host starts similarly in the realm of horror comedy, but it never successfully makes the transition to anything else despite several attempts. In the immediate aftermath of Hyun-seo’s disappearance, the family is reunited in a mourning area, where their hysterical grief transcends sadness and gets to farce. What is the joke here, that a family is sad to so violently lose a member? The impression is that Bong is laughing at his characters. In Memories of Murder, he demonstrates an ability to wring pointed humor and pathos out its protagonist, a torturing bully of a cop, but with scenes like the one earlier described, the characters of The Host never become more than types in a horror film.
If the tone mortally wounds the characters as much as a pointy sea-monster tooth, The Host is made at least watchable by Bong’s always inventive direction. The monster’s early emergence is reminiscent of post-outbreak Shaun of the Dead, where people remain locked in their routines and oblivious to the danger until the last moment. This leads to jarring POV shots of characters turning to see the monster charging into frame. Its construction evokes the demon dogs in Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy, but Bong is never as handy with effects as the Mexican master of visceral creatures. Bong’s greatest touch is a hallucinatory daydream sequence, where Hyun-seo reappears in the snack stand while the Park family regroups. No one acknowledges her presence, but they feed her snacks as they talk about how much they miss her, bringing her briefly to life with their longing. There’s the shadow of Bong making the transition into a better movie in this scene, but the momentum doesn’t last.
It’s always disappointing to be let down by one of your favorite directors, especially when horror seems so well-suited to his talents. The Host is a miss for Bong Joon-ho, one that he would rectify with Mother, but that mark still exists on an otherwise impressive resume. If he wasn’t so eclectic with his choices, another shot might be in the offing, but there are too many other genres for him to dip a toe into before revisiting ones he’s already dabbled in. We’ll have to be satisfied a futuristic rom-com, or something, instead of getting another horror comedy. C