Korean Creature Feature Premiers at The Smith

“The Host,” a horror movie with a difference and South Korea’s biggest box-office hit ever, screens at 7 p.m., May 25, 26, 28 and 29 and at 2 p.m., May 27 at the Smith Opera House, 82 Seneca St.A monster movie for the 21st century, “The Host” takes familiar genre elements and then crushes them in much the same way the title creature runs amok along the Seoul riverbank it calls home. Written and directed by Bong Joon-ho, it’s a film that will catch you leaning in one direction and abruptly pull you in another, all the while building to a surprisingly emotional climax.On a U.S. military base in South Korea, a patronizing, intransigent American official (Scott Wilson) orders a Korean subordinate to pour toxic formaldehyde down a drain that empties into the Han River. Years later, a mutant creature emerges from the watery depths, terrorizing the crowds along its park-like banks. It’s a fairly standard monster movie setup — so standard that it looks suspiciously like parody.Further tilting the early tilt toward comedy is the director’s generous use of slapstick in the opening sequences. But just when you think he’s playing it strictly for laughs, he throws in some attention-grabbing scares. Bong has a lot more on his mind than caricature.At the center of the turmoil is the disjointed Park family. Father Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong) runs a food stand beside the river with his ne’er-do-well eldest son, Gang-du (Song Kang-ho). Another son, Nam-il (Park Hae-il), is an unemployed university grad, while daughter Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na) is a competitive archer. Gang-du has a precocious teenage daughter, Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung), whose mother ran off after giving birth to her.The family is introduced in humorous, fairly broad terms, but Bong slyly develops the characters as the film evolves, shedding its popcorn veneer to become something more complex.Bong Joon-ho’s previous features include a comedy “Barking Dogs Never Bite” and the shiver-inducing thriller “Memories of Murder.” As he did in “Memories,” about the hunt for a serial killer, 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 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 it gives 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 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 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 script is laced with political jabs that include a solid broadside at the perceived paternalism embedded in U.S.-South Korean relations. Bong is also concerned with South Korea’s social structure — poking fun at the soullessness of salarymen while championing the working class — and it’s no surprise that he studied sociology at the University of Yonsei.With a subversive streak as wide as the Han and a title open to interpretation, “The Host” confounds our expectations while providing top-notch entertainment. For Bong, the monster movie is an ample vessel, one that he can fill with social criticism while discovering exuberant amusement in the process.”The Host” is a loopy, feverishly imaginative genre hybrid about the demons that haunt us from without and within. It’s a creature feature that refuses to settle into a mold, and that’s precisely why it deserves a look. It is in Korean with English subtitles. It is rated R and has a running time of two hours. Tickets are $5 general admission and $3 for students and senior citizens. Call 315-781-LIVE (5483) or toll-free 866-355-LIVE (5483) for details or to order tickets. Tickets may also be purchased on-line at www.TheSmith.org.

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