The Politics of Bong Joon-Ho’s “The Host”

This piece was originally published on So Anyways: Movies.

Many casual, English-speaking filmgoers are familiar with the works of Bong Joon-Ho, well, at least his works conducted in English: Snowpiercer and Okja. But not many Americans have witnessed his fishy creature feature: The Host (2006). Bong’s keenness to make The Host, or Gwoemul in Korean, a political film will come as no surprise to those who have seen either of his aforementioned movies. 

But this film is not so much about class struggle (Snowpiercer) or animal rights (Okja); The Host, in addition to being a wonderful family drama and a fun creature flick, serves as a critique of American consumerism, and in particular, the way Americans treat the world itself as a commodity. 

The film beings at an American military base in Korea with a bossy American mortician (Scott Wilson) who commands his Korean inferior, Mr. Kim (Brian Rhee), to dump a near endless supply of expired formaldehyde down the drain. The Korean objects, noting that it will flow directly to the Han River. “That’s right. Let’s just dump them in the Han River,” notes that American. Mr. Kim reluctantly obeys orders, unknowingly creating the film’s monster. 

The politics of this scene are a little on the nose. This is the western, not the eastern, way to treat rivers and the world. This little prologue is set in 2000, while the rest of the film begins in 2006 at Park Hie-bong (Byeon Hie-bong)’s food stand that he runs with his son Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho). Outside of giving the monster time to grow, this time adjustment serves another purpose: in 2000 an American military base in Korea authorized “20 gallons (76 liters) of the chemical [to be] disposed of through the wastewater sewage system on the base,” according to the New York Times. Placing the prologue in 2000 places the film in reality.

So, the environmental monster is created by American military intervention — nice. 

This monster then attacks the park where the family’s food stand lies, as the film’s protagonist, Gang-du, tries to find his daughter, Park Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung), after trying to help an American with a hero-complex fight the monster. He finds her and shortly after they fall. He grabs her hand in an expertly directed and stylized moment: he grabbed the wrong hand and the Gwoemul gets the girl. The government thinks the monster killed the daughter, as do we for some time (memorial scene included), until she calls her dad on her poor-signal cell phone in the middle of the night to plead for help out of the giant sewer.

Politically, one thing that makes Bong’s film interesting, is its reliance on two languages: there are quite a few English speakers in a Korean film. An English speaking doctor (Paul Lazar) appears while Gang-du undergoes a series of medical tests after revealing the monster’s blood shed on his face in the initial attack. Up until now, the United States, in their investigations of an American soldier who survived the attack, had been unable to find any sign of a virus contracted by the creature. The soldier died not because of any virus, but because of the medical operations. The US government told the world otherwise. 

As Gang-du shouts about his daughter being alive, the doctor’s reactions suggests he believes him. The doctor turns to his Korean assistant (again, the Korean is in the subordinate position even though the American is the foreigner) only to confirm that the virus must be in Gang-du’s brain; they must sample his brain to be sure, even though the anesthetics didn’t work. 

This American critique is a little more subtle than the last, but either way the film’s introduction creates an uneasy feeling whenever viewers hear English. This doctor’s revelation of the virus being a misinformation campaign on behalf of the United States government indulges eastern viewers in a pattern of US foreign relations behavior that they are already familiar with. It works for Bong’s audience because they know the feeling.

Eventually Gang-du escapes and heads for the sewers where his brother, Park Nam-il (Park Hae-il), and sister, Park Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na), have been exploring in search of Hyun-seo with little luck. Meanwhile Hyun-seo awaits in a pit where the creature periodically dumps bodies, hoping for a sign of life, she eventually finds a small homeless boy, Se-joo (Lee Dong-ho), whose brother is among the lifeless bodies. In their adultless situation, surrounded by reminders of death and the fear that sits above them, they form a friendship, and Hyun-seo promises the boy food from her family’s food stand when they find freedom.

The final fight maintains the anti-American colonial attitude. In the final moments, Nam-il throws molotov cocktails at the monster as a homeless man begins to pour gasoline on it from above. (The molotov cocktail being an important symbol in the Korean student riots for democracy.) With one cocktail left, Nam-il drops their last chance, or at least so we think, until his sister picks up some of the fiery paper, and shoots her arrow, another Korean symbol, directly at the monster, lighting it up like a storm of American bombs. 

Gang-du adopts the boy and they live out of his food stand. The film closes with a cerebral moment as Gang-du makes food for See-joo with the American newscasters on the television in the background. You can’t hear anything they say as the Korean voices of the two characters dominate our ears, but we know the newscasters are, again, talking about the Korean monster incident.  Gang-du asks, “Should we watch something else?” And See-joo poignantly responds, “Let’s turn it off. Concentrate on eating.” The message is clear: let’s tune out western media and Korea will be more peaceful, able to rest. 

But now we get to the big problem with my interpretation: the film is called “The Host.” Here, I’ll let an expert speak instead. In an article in the American Quarterly, scholar Christina Klein writes: 

“These scenes suggests that this monster is not produced by nature (as in Jaws), or science (as in Frankenstein), or even by U.S. military power (as in Godzilla), but rather by a political posture of subservience: it is the Korean assistant, not the American morgue boss, who creates the monster. While the Korean title of the film, Gwoemul, simply means “creature,” the English-language title of the film suggests the nature of this deepest crime, implying that Korea has let itself become a ‘host’ to a parasitic United States.”

This infers that the conclusion over dinner is precisely what we said above: Korea must tune out the west, particularly the U.S. However, Klein’s interpretation brings light to two earlier scenes: 

  1. Shortly after the birth of the monster and when we see two fisherman catch a baby version, we see a Korean man commit suicide, jumping off the bridge into the Han River. He effectively becomes “The Host” for the monster. It needed a human to come to life, the same way the United States needs Korea to act like its Eastern puppet, fighting its wars and keeping North Korea at bay. This film condemns this attitude; Korea can no longer be a “host” for United States ideology. 
  2. While Gang-du is being probed by the doctor, he is being translated into English, and vice-versa, for the doctor. Gang-du snaps at the translator and tells the doctor to hear his words because they are words too. America needs to hear Korea. This moment comes full circle when at the end Gang-du turns off the news so he can spend time with Se-joo — so he can hear Se-joo instead of the American pundits. 

America isn’t the monster in this film. That would be too boring, and quite frankly, too easy for Bong Joon-ho. The monster is Korea when it acts as a host for western ideologies.

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