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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

"The Host," a new film from South Korea, features a hungry mutant amphibian and a quirky family. Its opening in the U.S. this weekend has been eagerly awaited by science fiction fans like Rick Kleffel. He thinks "The Host" could redefine an old genre.

RICK KLEFFEL: It turns out all this time they've been making monster movies backwards.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Host")

KLEFFEL: When we go to the theater to see a creature feature, we're going to see the monster. Yet most of these films don't offer us more than a glimpse of one until well into the show, and even by the end, we're lucky to see more than a moment of special effects. The average monster movie spends most of its time introducing us to characters we hope will die sooner rather than later. Just so we can get a glimpse of what we paid to see.

Suspense is all well and good, and movies like "Jaws" and "Alien" use it effectively, but it only go so far. Scary noises and monster vision camera angles that don't show what you're supposed to be scared of can serve to dilute fear rather than build it. We want the pay-off.

"The Host" by Korean director Bong Joon-ho, inverts this formula with amazing success. An American scientist orders his Korean subordinate to dump toxic chemicals down a drain that will flush them into the local environment. Then, six years later, and just 12 minutes into the movie, we're in bright daylight in an open field at the edge of the Han River.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Host")

Park Gang-Du, a dozy noodle seller, joins a crowd staring at something big hanging from the bridge. Is it construction equipment? No. It's a 40-foot mutant salamander that drops into the water and clumsily climbs up on the shore and emerges to snap up any panicked passerby it can grab. We see this happening not just from the ground, but from the perspective of riders on an elevated train with a startling surreal clarity. A huge monster is on the loose.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Host")

KLEFFEL: In the expertly choreographed confusion that follows, the monster grabs Gang-Du's daughter, Hyun-Seo, and finds itself pitted against the entire Park family - Gang-Du, his sister, a champion archer; his brother, an unemployed college grad slacker; and Hyun-Seo's crabby grandfather. They're rounded up because American doctors warned that the monster may be the host to a deadly virus.

While they're in the hospital, Hyun-Seo calls them from her cell phone and tells them she's alive in the monster's lair. It's up to her squabbling, dysfunctional family to escape from captivity so they can find and save her.

(Soundbite of music)

KLEFFEL: Think of "The Host" as "The Royal Tenenbaums vs. Godzilla" and you get the idea. Bong Joon-ho grabs your attention with a rocking monster, then follows through with a witty movie that offers comedy, horror and charisma as the Park family tracks it down.

The film moves effortlessly from scenes of grief to slapstick comedy and makes sure you know the monster has just as much personality as the family. You're involved on a visceral level with the monster and on a genuine emotional level with the family.

We're not dozing off waiting for three generations of the Park family to die. Instead we see them full of life, matched by a monster that has an appetite for life. Structuring "The Host" backwards, with the monster appearing first and then driving the character development that follows, proves to be an amazing bit of forward thinking.

For NPR News, I'm Rick Kleffel.

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