The plug-ugly monster that jumps out of a city river in “The Host” to scoop up and chomp down on those unlucky enough to cross its path — men, women, a whip-smart 13-year-old girl named Hyun-seo — looks like something you might find lurking at the bottom of a Hieronymus Bosch painting or trolling the depths of a murky restaurant aquarium in the middle of a toxic dump. Blink and it looks like something that slimed out of the sea in a creationist nightmare.
It would have to be an awfully big aquarium, as it happens, because this fishy creature, this mystery from the deep with the gulping petaled mouth and prehensile tail is the size of a school bus and restless to boot. It rushes underwater and races over ground, its sturdy little legs churning turf. Every so often it spirals into a back flip as gracefully as a prepubescent Romanian gymnast or drops into the water like a knife, scoring a perfect-10 dive. It’s as ugly as sin, this thing, but it has style to burn. As does this film, a loopy, feverishly imaginative genre hybrid from the South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, about the demons that haunt us from without and within.
By turns a carnival of horrors and a family melodrama (variations on the same theme), “The Host” is also a rethink of those 1950s cine-quickies in which mondo ants, locusts, wasps, crabs and snails and one seriously ticked off amphibious reptile go on the rampage, visiting punishment on a hapless, guilty humanity. Like Godzilla (Gojira in the original Japanese), some of these mutants were born under a mushroom cloud; others were hatched in the B-movie hothouse of box-office opportunism. The creature running amok in “The Host,” meanwhile, was spawned by a 37-year-old South Korean who has spent his entire life in the shadow of the American military presence. No wonder the bad guys look like character actors on leave from Hollywood. They are.
As if in preparation for the carnage to come, the once-upon-a-time story opens in a modern autopsy room with two men, an American and a Korean, dressed in scrubs. Bathed in an eerie, silvery blue light, the American boss (Scott Wilson) orders the Korean (Kim Hak-sun) to dump bottle upon bottle of formaldehyde down the drain, on the pretext that the containers have become too dusty.
Stunned, the Korean objects, noting that the chemical will flow from the drain into the Han River, the fat ribbon of water that cuts through Seoul and empties into the Yellow Sea. The American grimaces, capping his request with a barely veiled threat (“That’s an order”) that betrays him as an emissary of American military might.
Fast-forward to a day like any other and the Park family running its snack stand on the banks of the Han. Calculatingly, goofily dysfunctional, with enough issues to populate a couple of 12-step groups, the Parks don’t seem all that different from the brood in “Little Miss Sunshine.” There’s gramps, Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong), his three adult children — including an unemployed salaryman, Nam-il (Park Hae-il), and his archery-champ sister, the lovely Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na) — and only grandchild, the aforementioned Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung). Mostly, though, there is the family’s oldest son, Gang-du (the wonderful Song Kang-ho), an overgrown baby with a shock of badly bleached blond hair and a moon face that waxes and wanes depending on his proximity to his beloved daughter, Hyun-seo.
Bong Joon-ho’s previous features include a smart-aleck exercise in gratuitous nonsense called “Barking Dogs Never Bite” (they just comically kick the bucket) and the shiver-inducing thriller “Memories of Murder.” As he did in “Memories,” about the hunt for a serial killer, Mr. Bong relies on a familiar bag of movie tricks in “The Host.” But, much like Steven Spielberg (an unmistakable influence), he makes all those old tricks feel new. That’s especially true during the monster’s first attack, when Mr. Bong instills an initial sense of calm and then of rapidly escalating panic through his masterful orchestration of the various tempos created by the actors (walking, then running), the monster (swimming, then galloping), the camera (tracking, then racing) and the edits (slow, slow, fast!).
The opening attack is sensationally well directed, and if the rest of the film never quickens the pulse in the same accelerated fashion, it does give the story both its principal excuse (the monster grabs the granddaughter) and something just as satisfying if unexpected: a portrait of parents, children and the ties that bind, sometimes to the point of near-strangulation. “The Host” may be born out of sociopolitical tensions, scares about SARS and the avian flu, or Mr. Bong’s imagination, but it’s also a snapshot of a modern South Korea bordering on social anarchy, one in which a fatalistically obedient old-timer and his three preternaturally immature adult children face down a rampaging beast along with clueless doctors, Keystone Kops, faithless friends and even hordes of paparazzi.
Besieged by humans and monster alike, the family has nowhere to go but deep inside itself. This us-against-them strategy works deviously well because it ensures that the Parks are the star attraction, not the monster. Not that the creature doesn’t have its share of show-stopping moments, as when it’s caught by surprise in midgulp, a pair of legs dangling from its mouth. Or when it regurgitates a corpse into its lair with a slimy splat, an act it seals with a tender lick of its long tongue. It’s in this lair that Hyun-seo, her face and schoolgirl’s uniform flecked with muck, proves her mettle, retrieving the cellphone that becomes the lifeline to her family and playing protector to another child who adds a touching dimension to the mix.
Although some of Mr. Bong’s action scenes here are the match of those in “Jaws,” he seems made of sterner stuff than Mr. Spielberg. He can seem just as cruel, readily putting children in mortal danger, but he doesn’t share the American master’s compulsive need for tidy endings.
“The Host” is a loose, almost borderline messy film, one that sometimes feels like a mash-up of contrasting, at times warring movies, methods and moods. Mr. Bong would as soon have us shriek with laughter as with fright. But it’s precisely that looseness, that willingness to depart from the narrative straight and narrow, that makes the film feel closer to a new chapter than a retread.
Likewise it is Mr. Bong’s willingness not just to contemplate but also to deliver a worst-case scenario that separates “The Host” from run-of-the-mill horror and may have helped make it a runaway hit in Korea. Closer to home the film reminds me less of the usual splatter entertainments that clutter American movie theaters and more of another recent horror film, the one in which a newly thawed alien with a giant brain delivers apocalyptic warnings to humanity about its imminent future. I’m talking of course about the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Much like that Al Gore big-screen lecture, “The Host” is a cautionary environmental tale about the domination of nature and the costs of human folly, and it may send chills up your spine. But only one will tickle your fancy and make you cry encore, not just uncle.
“The Host” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It contains monster violence galore.