South Korean director Bong Joon-ho is a master of mood, knowing just when to move from absurdist humour to rage against the system to poignancy. His talent won him the Best Picture Oscar for his global smash hit Parasite (2019). In his 2006 film The Host (2006), satirical comedy, political commentary and family dynamics throb separately and together in a classic creature feature.

A monster is rising to the surface of the Han River. Like the giant beast that was birthed by nuclear radiation in the pioneering Japanese classic Godzilla (1954), the enormous elongated fish with legs is the result of American chemical pollution.

Among the humans scooped up by the monster after it makes its appearance is Hyun-seo, the school-going daughter of single parent Park Gang-du. Consumed by grief, Gang-du and his father, brother and sister descend into the sewers to rescue Hyun-seo, whom they believe is alive.

The seemingly routine plot has been explored numerous times by Hollywood disaster movies. But The Host, which is available on Netflix, is anything but predictable. The film is thrilling, darkly comic, and layered with political allegory – an achievement that characterises the best of contemporary South Korean cinema.

Deft character sketching quickly establishes the characteristics of the Park family, especially its unlikely hero. The cast includes Byun Hee Bong as the Park patriarch, the gifted actor Bae Donna (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Kingdom), who plays Gang-du’s archer sister, and Decision to Leave lead actor Park Hae-il as Gang-du’s brother.

Gang-du is what might be impolitely described a loser, forever dozing on the job. Played by the brilliant Song Kang-ho (who was also in Parasite), Gang-du bumbles his way towards valour. His family members are equally ordinary people trapped in a crisis not of their making. Their rescue mission has a rough, improvisational quality, just like the riverine creature looks like a child’s drawing come to life rather than a sophisticated computer-generated marvel.

The fleetly placed movie expertly shifts gears as its gallops towards a spectacular finale. Action set-pieces are stacked with acutely observed details. Always looking for a new or a different way to stage the obvious, Bong elevates routine scenes through kinetic shot-taking and cutting.

Take the sequence in which the monster appears. We see it quite suddenly hanging upside down from a bridge. The people along the river’s promenade do what anybody else would do in these circumstances: they gawk, draw closer to the strange sighting, and then pull out their cameras.

The creature is now galloping towards them – but from another direction. Chaos reigns, as does comedy.

There are several quieter moments, which reveal the deep ties between the family members. Gang-du also has a brother who used to be a political activist. The rag-tag bunch steps up when their government fails them, taking on an adversary that is a result of the government’s failings. The Host plays several scenes for laughs, but the anger against political ineptitude is never far away. The biggest bumblers are in the government, which has no clue how to deal with the crisis and instead leans on its American ally to come up with a solution – which turns out to be a joke.

The Host (2006).