(No explicit spoilers, but spoiler-sensitive readers should watch the movie first and come back later.)
A monstrous crisis in South Korean national identity.
On the surface, The Host looks a lot like any other monster movie. It showcases an evil beast hell-bent on the destruction of the local population. And yet, even here director Joon-ho Bong refuses the conventions of the genre he’s working within. He shows us the monster right from the start (almost in the first scene) and almost always in broad daylight rather than hiding the special effects in dark nighttime shots. Rather than glorifying the monster’s destruction (the disaster porn model) or reveling in the fear it creates (the horror model), he pitches the film at a challenging and uncomfortable level of black comedy and tragic farce (even our heroes are fools, a premise which is often difficult to accept). This is a world without clear-cut heroes and villains, replaced instead by a more complex morality.
And this begins to take us beneath the surface, where we find something much more interesting: The Host is a movie about the cultural crisis in South Korean national identity. After the Korean War, America was a major cultural influence in South Korea, particularly in terms of its national cinema:
"The United States played a crucial role, first as a superpower military presence and powerful ally during the Korean War, and later as a dominant cultural force in the war's aftermath... The cultural atmosphere of postwar South Korea was such that many saw America as the national savior and indiscriminately accepted its culture... Such fetishization of all things American... stemmed from South Korea's introduction to its culture... especially through the Hollywood movies that filled many of the nation's movie theaters." (1)This importing of American culture only continued to build after the war, reaching its peak before the turn of the century and overpowering the country’s own local cinema:
"Foreign film corporations, however, have rushed into the Korean film market since the market liberalization [in 1988]. Hollywood majors... set up branches in Korea to import their movies. The number of foreign films imported was only 30 in 1985 and 50 in 1986, respectively; however, it soared to 483 in 1996 and easily over 300 movies every year due to Hollywood’s direct distribution. Korea has emerged as one of the top ten film markets for U.S. releases. The domestic film business barely continued its existence while the Hollywood majors extended their dominance in the Korean market." (2)This culminated in the eventual "Blockbusterization” of Korean cinema: the country began to imitate the style of American cinema to the point that "during the period of 1999 to 2004, Hollywood-style action and comedy movies became the largest genres in the market, while the number of films treating social crises significantly decreased" (2). In comes Joon-ho Bong, creating a movie right at the height of this historical trend which uses precisely this "Hollywood-style" filmmaking (a big-budget sci-fi monster movie) in order to confront social crises (the callous military and the incompetent government are often scarier than the monster). It is a movie which allegorically confronts the issues of its time at a fundamental level.
The film opens with a scene of two scientists, one American and one Korean, in which the American orders the Korean to dump a large amount of formaldehyde down the drain. This was inspired by a real news story, but it also gives us both the origin story for the monster (toxic chemicals dumped into the Han river) as well as the framework for its examination of Korean identity. America is represented as a toxic influence on the country, creating a demonic beast intent on devouring its population. The monster is a direct metaphorical embodiment of America and its dangerous influence on the Korean people.
Our central characters are a small Korean family: a father, two brothers, a sister, and a young daughter. The primary generation (the brothers and the sister) are all explicitly aligned with South Korean national identity. The sister (Nam-joo Park, played by Doona Bae) is an Olympic archer, a woman literally standing up for her country in an international competition. The younger brother (Hie-bong Park, played by Hie-bong Byeon) is a university graduate, an immensely important figure in Korean history. In the final showdown with the monster, Nam-joo uses her archery while Hie-bong throws molotov cocktails. In the background, a large group of locals protest against the government; this image of violent student protest has enormous cultural significance in Korea for both the Gwangju Uprising and the April Revolution. Three direct representations of South Korean national identity fighting side by side for independence from American influence.
The older brother (Gang-do Park, played by the immortal Kang-ho Song) is the most complicated figure of the three. He works at the small food stand owned by the family, but by all accounts he seems to be a foolish failure (he also has bleached hair, a style popular in Korea because of the way it made you look more American). We first see him sleeping on the job and then eating some of a customer’s food before serving it to them; eventually we find out that he’s been skimming money from the stand (only small change—he’s even bad at being bad). And yet, his father sees all this as well and still loves him. He gives a heartfelt speech in the middle of the film about Gang-do’s childhood: he was too poor to get the proper nutrition when he needed it most.
This serves as the quilting point for one of the film’s major themes: food. The film constantly uses food as a marker of national identity. Gang-do is chastised for eating the longest leg of a customer's squid because of its special significance; he’s told not to eat anything at the hospital before his testing; the family worries that their missing daughter might not have anything to eat; the first thing they do after they escape the hospital is have a meal together; the kidnapped children discuss what food they’ll eat when they get out. Food is an essential part of our existence, and for Joon-ho Bong it’s also an essential part of Korean culture.
This importance of food and its alignment with national identity is shown most clearly in the film’s final scene, where Joon-ho Bong also offers his ethical stance on the issues he's presenting. Gang-do (his blonde highlights now gone) and Se-joo (his new surrogate son) are at home in the food stand, watching television and preparing to eat dinner. An American news broadcast is playing, but Se-joo says that there's nothing good on and to turn the TV off so that they can concentrate on eating their meal. This is Joon-ho Bong’s message to Korea: stop mindlessly consuming the culture of America so that you can more properly consume the culture of Korea. Turn off the TV and go eat your dinner.
100 Favorite Films | My Essential Sci-Fi Canon
Top 10: 2000's Sci-Fi | South Korea
Junesploitation (Day 10 – Free Space!)
1. Jeong, Kelly Y. Crisis of Gender and the Nation in Korean Literature and Cinema: Modernity Arrives Again. Lexington Books, 2011, p. 85
2. Jin, Dal Yong. Blockbusterization vs. Copywood: The Nation-State and Cultural Identity in Korean Cinema. Journal of Media Economics and Culture 2005; 3(3): 46-72.