What is an environmental movie? Is it a movie that uses the beauty of wilderness to make us fall in love with the earth, as for example Into the Wild, or Brokeback Mountain? Is it a movie that explicitly tackles an environmental issue, such as Erin Brockovich, or The China Syndrome?

At the movies

Or is it a picture that exploits the power of raw film to open up an environmental theme — such as the risk of radiation — with sheer imagination, such as (the original) Godzilla?

It’s a rhetorical question, but one with an inescapable answer: all of the above count as environmental movies, each in its own way, some better than others. And if this is true, as it surely is, than the best environmental movie of the year may turn out to be an unlikely candidate: the mesmerizing — and funny — Korean movie released internationally this year, The Host.

Though essentially a cheesy horror movie, it’s phenomenally well-directed, and to date has been the best-reviewed foreign film of the year.

Anthony Lane of The New Yorker, hardly known for his raves, gushed that "there will be plenty of filmgoers who yawned through ‘Godzilla’ in 1998 and swore off large amphibians for good. All I can say, to tempt them back, is that I have seen ‘The Host’ twice and have every intention of watching it again." The New York Times compared the director to Steven Spielberg, favorably, likened the humor in the film to Little Miss Sunshine, and explicitly noted the environmental theme:

… the film reminds me less of the usual splatter entertainments that clutter American movie theaters and more of another recent horror film, the one in which a newly thawed alien with a giant brain delivers apocalyptic warnings to humanity about its imminent future. I’m talking of course about the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”

The Village Voice compared the director Bong Joon-ho to Sergei Eisenstein, for crying out loud, and New York magazine called it "one of the greatest monster movies ever made."

Here’s the enviro part: the opening scene, shot in a cool, distant, almost-documentary style, shows an American doctor working with a young Korean doctor in a morgue on an American military base in Seoul. The American doctor notices that dust has collected on the morgue’s supply of formaldehyde bottles, and orders the Korean doctor to pour the deadly, mutagenic chemical down the drain, even though the Korean doctor protests that it will go directly to the Han River, and that it’s against regulations. The American doctor sneers: "The Han River is very broad — let us be broad-minded, Mr. Kim." So the Korean pours the toxin down the drain, and the horror beings.

Astonishingly, this is not a fictional scene. Explained the director Joon-ho to Cineaste:

It was a double blessing for me to convey some political commentary in the film and have it work within a genre. For instance, the opening scene, when the two scientists are pouring chemicals into the Han River refers to an actual event that took place six years ago. But at the same time it’s a very typical monster movie opening.

Now insiders report that the new Frank Darabont/Stephen King movie about to be released, The Mist, is actually a rip-off of this modern classic, and far inferior. What a shock!

A word to the wise: rent the DVD and see the original, before some overbaked Hollywood imitation ruins it for you. The Host is a little strange at times, it’s bizarrely funny, and it has a monster that looks like some demented kind of oversized oyster sex, but as David Edelstein wisely noted:

In the end, though, this is a real horror movie. It’s hard to shake off the first sight of the creature in the far distance, hanging from the side of a bridge like some kind of pupa, then dropping into the water and gliding toward shore (to the oohs and ahhhs of the dopes on the bank, who throw food to it). When Hyun-seo becomes the mother she never had to a homeless orphan who’s still alive when he’s dumped into the monster’s bloody pit, The Host leaves the realm of its campy modern counterparts. But then, despite cartoonish flourishes, it has never functioned at the level of movies like Tremors or Eight Legged Freaks or even Jurassic Park. This is a portrait of a country’s deepest anxieties, which just happen to be distilled into a mandibled squidlike reptile. It has the tang of social realism.

A word to the wise: on the DVD, choose the subtitled Korean version (that was shown in theaters over here), not the dubbed American version, which sounds as if five actors chosen at random were put in a room to ad lib dialogue in English. But most importantly, if you like good movies — don’t miss it.