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      The Host Review

      The Host poster

      The Host

      Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

      Like all good hosts, the host in "The Host," a mutant squid-lizard that moves with the agility of an Olympic gymnast, throws a lively party with a little of everything: scares, laughs, politics and a bit of archery.

      South Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho has made a considerable international splash with this picture, and no wonder. It boasts a photogenic antagonist from the deep. It's also savvy enough to make you care about the human factor. Like "Pan's Labyrinth," another (but very different) R-rated fantasy in which a young girl confronts evil beyond her imagining, "The Host" takes its perils seriously.

      Fulfilling one expectation of its genre, Bong's film is about the fracturing and reassembling of an extended family. On the banks of Seoul's Han River, snack shop proprietor Kang-du (Song Kang-ho) loses his middle-school-age daughter (Ko A-sung) to the slimy tentacles of the massive squid-lizard, in the monster's first major assault. The scene is beautifully paced; from the first sighting of the creature, in droll, matter-of-fact medium shot, you know you're in assured directorial hands.

      To Kang-du's father, brother and archer-sister, the girl's abduction - she and a young boy are kept alive in the creature's lair underneath a city bridge - is merely the latest proof that Kang-du is hapless. Dad has a score to settle with his own reputation. "The Host" sticks close to one family's response to the crisis, while taking shots at the reasons for the trouble. In a prologue, a U.S. Army officer, in charge of the morgue in Seoul, orders an underling to dump toxic chemicals down the drain. (This is based on a real-life incident, though as far as we know a monster-free one.) Years later, bingo: squid-zard in the river, thanks to American arrogance.

      South Korea doesn't come off much better. In cahoots with the Americans, the government sprays witnesses to the first attack with something called "Agent Yellow." Later, in a throwaway line, we learn that post-attack cleanup operations have been farmed out to 14 different private companies, none of which seems to know what it's doing. The tone of "The Host" is slippery in the best way; you're never sure if you're in for a joke or a shock, yet nothing feels random. It's on the longish side, and it has a couple of extra endings, but the film (as William H. Macy said of Joe Mantegna in "Homicide") is like an aquarium. There's something going on every minute.

      Director Bong's previous feature, "Memories of Murder" (2003), was a slippery fish as well, treating the pursuit of a serial killer with a sardonic touch, just this side of facetious. He's a wit, and he knows how to deploy wit (as opposed to gags, though he's not above a few choice sight gags in "The Host") to further a narrative. At the same time Bong knows what a chosen genre demands. When someone in "The Host" edges close to the water and says, "It's an Amazonian river dolphin for sure!" you know full well he's about to be proven wrong.

      "The Host"

      Written and directed by Bong Joon-ho; cinematography by Kim Hyung-goo; edited by Kim Sun-min; production design by Ryu Seong-hee; music by Byeongwoo Lee; produced by Choi Yong-bae. A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 1:59. MPAA rating: R (creature violence and language).

      Park Kang-du - Song Kang-ho

      Park Hee-bong - Byun Hee-bong

      Park Nam-il - Park Hae-il

      Park Nam-joo - Bae Doo-na

      Park Hyun-seo - Ko A-sung

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