It's a lovely summer Sunday at the riverside park in the capital city : picnics, touch football, pretty girls listening to iPods. Strollers buy snacks from the family-run food truck in the parking lot by the embankment. Something massive and slimy hangs from the underside of a bridge.
A crowd gathers to gawk and the thing slowly uncurls from its girder and knifes into the water. It swims with the current, people run along the bank, shouting and pointing. Then someone pelts it with a beer can.
How do you make a monster movie in the 21st century? Or rather, how do you make a monster movie that's not a joke? Bong Joon-ho's merrily deranged "The Host" provides an answer: by inviting audiences into the joke, then knocking them continually off-balance. The puckish South Korean filmmaker's third movie is many things: dysfunctional family comedy, social satire, bureaucratic farce, germ-warfare horror flick. Mostly, though, it's "Godzilla" with a severe case of Murphy's Law, and it is never less than bizarrely delightful.
On one side of the ledger we have the monster: a galumphing sea-serpent with stegosaurus legs and a mouth that's a Freudian nightmare. We learn in a B-movie opening scene that the creature's probably a result of 200 gallons of formaldehyde poured directly into Seoul's Han River, but whatever: It's big and it's ticked.
On the other side we have the Park family, the clan running that snack van by the river. They're hardly heroic but they're all we've got: grease-spattered grandpa Hie-bong (Hie-bong Byeon), his useless layabout son Gang-du (Kang-ho Song), and Gang-du's no-nonsense schoolgirl daughter Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko).
Later we'll meet Hie-bong's other useless son Nam-il (Hae-il Park), who at least is able to get up in the morning but still can't find a job, and Nam-il's fetching sister Nam-joo (Du-na Bae), first seen losing an archery contest on national TV. It helps to have someone handy with a bow and arrow in this kind of movie. It's supposed to, anyway.
Like a mob fleeing the monster's approach, "The Host" fans out in a number of directions, most of them unexpectedly funny. The schoolgirl gets carted off by the beastie but is able to check in with Dad before her cell phone batteries run out. The Parks then mount a rescue attempt that is stymied by (a) government troops who insist Gang-du has been infected by a virus carried by the monster and (b) their own spectacular ineptitude.
The United States and the World Health Organization get involved; soon the Parks are on the run with their faces broadcast on TV under the legend "Warning: Infected Family." At a certain point it becomes unclear what's the greater horror: the rampaging mutant, the government's over reaction, or the populace's bovine acceptance of that over reaction. "This man's brain may be our only hope!" says one government scientist about Gang-du, and that's when you know the country's really in trouble.
South Korea can take a joke, at least, since "The Host" broke box-office records when it opened there last year. It should find find an audience in this country, too. The special effects are both marvelous and richly bogus, and they come courtesy of New Zealand's Weta Digital and San Francisco's The Orphanage. The ease with which the monster back-flips along the underpinnings of highway superstructures is as mesmerizing to us as it is to the characters.
Still, it's Bong's movie, and he plays with the creature-feature genre like a brat with a fresh toy. His last film was 2003's much-praised detective story "Memories of Murder"; he's working on an omnibus project called "Tokyo" next with France's Léos Carax and Michel Gondry, both directors with similarly shaggy approaches to filmmaking.
"The Host" reflects either rigorous playfulness or major-league attention deficit disorder; either way, it's an engaging exercise in entropy. Gallant plans go awry, people fall asleep when you least expect them to, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. Bong gives us a rough beast slouching toward Seoul, and the idea that we get the monsters we deserve is enough to give him the giggles.