The creature that rises out of a murky river to terrorize Seoul in Bong Joon-ho’s terrific The Host may put you in mind of a certain jowly shark, but its flapping jaws have a broader material and symbolic reach than any horror to emerge from the mind’s eye of Steven Spielberg. Bong, who won plaudits and awards around the world for his early movies Barking Dogs Never Bite and Memories of Murder, knows his way around the monster movie, but his predatory creation gives no quarter. Part frog, part fish and wholly a man-made nightmare, this beastly mutant doesn’t have a thing for lithe blond tootsies. It doesn’t make goo-goo eyes, lumber around murmuring “friends,” or pal around with soulfully brown-eyed little girls. Impartial and arbitrary, this equal-opportunity destroyer prowls the banks of the river Han, where the city’s poor gather to squeeze what little pleasure they can out of their downtrodden lives. Pouncing on old and young alike, it either flattens them on the spot or carries them off to a dank sewer, there to chew them right down to the bone.

I have next to no affinity for horror, but I left the theater charmed. Though there’s real terror in these bloody scenes, products of a fertile partnership between the special-effects labs that produced King Kong and Sin City, The Host is also a caper among whose many virtues is a complete absence of the knowing snicker that comes packaged with most contemporary creature features. At 37 years old, Bong still counts as a young Turk, but he brings to his subject a humanistic affection and expansive knowledge of the real world rarely found among filmmakers who single-mindedly nourished their childhood imaginations on things from black lagoons. The Host is a miracle of breathless play with form and tone that also seethes with attitude and ideas, from pure movie love to pointed sociopolitical commentary to a bleak existentialism about the inherent cruelty of our world. Like most movie monsters, Bong’s beast is Us — an expression of elemental fears, longings and anxieties about life and death in a universe run amok. But its random violence speaks to a peculiarly modern Us that heedlessly screws up our habitat, then rushes around trying in vain to contain the consequences.

The movie opens with the now obligatory act of American malice, in this case based on a real-life incident: A U.S. Army base officer (Scott Wilson, whose career has spanned the range of baleful Yanks) orders his reluctant Korean assistant to pour quantities of formaldehyde down a sink, knowing full well that it will make its way into the river. In due course, the chemical works its black magic and shows up as the bloated creature, whose most terrifying aspect is not its rather modest size as monsters go, but the mutant body parts — a split, gaping maw and scaly extra limbs — jutting from all the wrong places, and the lopsided lope with which it stalks its proletarian victims, among whom lounges an altogether more affable monster. Fat and lazy, his broad features framed by a tacky blond dye job, Park Gang-du (played with adorable zest by the popular South Korean actor Song Kang-ho) is as useless at running the riverside food stand he mans with his hard-working father as he is benignly neglectful of his daughter Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung). Yet this grinning slacker, apparently incapable of summoning up predatory energy if his life depended on it, shapes up into an unlikely hero when Hyun-seo’s life comes to depend on him and his wacky family, whose most potent weapon against the creature is a bow and arrow.

The monster may be the host of every current fear we have, from viruses to water contamination to global terror. But as Park searches for his missing daughter, he has more to fear from the pompous, bumbling officials who thwart him at every turn, and who, in an uproarious send-up of SARS hysteria, run around in silly yellow suits flapping their hands. Park redeems himself, but it’s not what you think, for though Bong is an unabashed populist (“Hot shots stink,” was his enchanting reply to an interviewer who asked why he’s drawn to working-class people), he’s no sentimentalist. Tucked inside the warmly hopeful ending of The Host, if you really pay attention, is a chilling conviction that, creature or no creature, life is an uphill struggle with limited success against an indifferent and unforgiving universe. Which makes you fear, as well it might, for the future of the one child who lives to console us in The Host, as the birth of another child did in Children of Men.

THE HOST | Written and directed by BONG JOON-HO | Produced by CHOI YONG-BAE | Released by Magnolia Pictures | Selected theaters

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