To put across the idea for his new movie, ‘Memories of Murder’ director Bong Joon-Ho stuck a cut-out of the Loch Ness monster on a picture of Seoul’s Han river and showed it to his producer. Perhaps not the most auspicious of beginnings, but the resulting monster flick is now South Korea’s all-time box-office champ, having been seen by 13 million of the country’s 48 million inhabitants. In many ways, it’s actually a very traditional creature feature, where careless pollution by the US military spawns a huge fleet-footed amphibian thingummy that appears on the riverbank to munch on fistfuls of passers-by before carrying the survivors to its hidden lair to snack on later. Constructed around surprisingly graceful digital effects (courtesy of San Francisco outfit, The Orphanage), this self-evident crowdpleaser skilfully strings together hair-raising scares, jet-black comedy and plucky heroism as an ordinary dysfunctional family set aside their differences to try to rescue their daughter from the beastie’s clutches.
Although chomp ‘n’ chase is pretty much an international language, it’s still a very Korean monster movie, in the way that Bong’s previous masterly ‘Memories of Murder’ was an essentially Korean police procedural. The characters’ emotional volatility is almost a given of course, but ‘The Host’ also moves beyond the usual genre formula, since it’s rooted in burning indignation that the working-class folks at the centre of events are simply being ignored by high-handed authorities in thrall to the Americans – significant issues in a nation where democracy has only relatively recently taken root. All of which makes it the thinking person’s giant mutant tadpole pic, and just how many of those have you seen lately?