Publicity posters for The Host bill it as a monster movie, downplaying its epidemiological plot elements.
The predatory, amphibious monster featured in The Host is influenced by Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975).
Godzilla (1954) and other movies featuring radioactively mutated monsters also influenced the development of The Host’s toxic monster.
Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak (1995) — in which a monkey carrying an Ebola-like virus is brought to the U.S. — helped popularize concerns about contagious emerging diseases originating in underdeveloped countries.
This shot of disease control agents dressed in white biohazard suits typifies The Host’s theme of epidemiological risk.
This staged news clip from The Host visually associates the virus supposedly carried by the monster with avian influenza.
Ironically, the army mortician orders the “dirty formaldehyde” dumped because the bottles are gathering dust.
This tracking shot multiplies the threat posed by the formaldehyde bottle.
A superimposition visually connects the empty bottles with the waters of the Han River.
The fisherman uses his cup to scoop up a small mutated, squid-like creature—presumably a young version of the full-grown monster.
The creature first appears hanging beneath the Wonhyo Bridge.
by Hsuan L. Hsu
Released in July 2006, Bong Joon-ho’s The Host [Gwoemul] garnered both widespread popularity as the highest grossing South Korean film in history and critical acclaim, screening at the Cannes, New York, and Toronto film festivals. The film is often regarded as either a South Korean version of a Hollywood monster movie or a comic inversion of the traditional monster film. When it was released in the United States and other Western countries in 2007, The Host received rave reviews in venues ranging from Rolling Stone to The New Yorker. Many of these reviews focus on the film’s computer-generated monster, comparing it to classic films like King Kong (1933), Godzilla (1954), and Jaws (1975); New York Magazine praised The Host as “one of the greatest monster movies ever made!” (Hill) However, Bong himself has described having a more vexed relation with traditional monster films:
Writing in The New York Times, Manohla Dargis attributes the film’s originality to this dissolution of genre conventions:
As it unfolds through a series of digressions, fictional news clips, and multiple subplots, The Host combines generic conventions from monster movies, epidemiological outbreak narratives, news reportage, melodrama, and slapstick comedy. Early in the film, a gigantic amphibious creature emerges from the Han River, attacks dozens of bystanders, and kidnaps Hyun-seo, the daughter of the film’s protagonist, Gang-du. Fearing that the creature carries a mysterious virus, the South Korean military steps in and quarantines Gang-du’s entire family, along with anyone else who may have been exposed to the creature. When the family learns that Hyun-seo is still alive, Gang-du, his two siblings, and his father escape from quarantine in order to rescue her. As the family scours the sewers of South Korea’s capital city in search of the monster, the U.S. government and World Health Organization decide to circumvent the threat of an epidemic by treating the Han River area with an experimental biocide, Agent Yellow. Koreans organize a mass demonstration against the use of Agent Yellow, but the chemical is deployed just as the family and the monster meet to fight. Following this final confrontation, Gang-du matures from a layabout to a responsible parent, assuming responsibility for an orphan who was held captive in the creature’s mouth. Throughout the film, Bong inserts passing references to politically charged events ranging from the U.S.-led “war on terror” and the hooded detainees at Abu Ghraib to the 1980s South Korean democratization protests and recent concerns about SARS and avian flu.
Without denying the film's resonances with classic monster movies, this essay will argue that The Host can be productively interpreted as a revision of the popular epidemiological plot that Priscilla Wald has described as the “outbreak narrative”—a genre that legitimates Western scientific interventions and discourses of “development” while effectively blaming the results of underdevelopment on its victims. Through its intertwined genealogies of monstrosity, contagion, and biological hazard, The Host presents a critique of U.S. and international interventionism that stretches from the Korean War and the post-1997 structural adjustments imposed by the IMF to the biological and environmental harm caused by toxic dumping and chemical warfare. The film’s focus quickly shifts from the amphibious creature—whose most spectacular exploits occur within the first fifteen minutes of the narrative—to the monstrous measures imposed by international interests more concerned with preserving the health of the population than with sustaining South Korea’s capacities for social welfare and economic self-determination. The film thus shows how paranoid narratives of epidemiological outbreak mask the neoliberal economic reforms that have undermined traditional family life and the means of social reproduction associated with food, family support, and a healthy environment. Because The Host proceeds in the mode of pastiche—explicitly alluding to a range of popular films and genres that include Jaws, Outbreak, and news clips from the invasion of Iraq—my argument will pursue various points of origin for the film’s numerous environmental, economic, evolutionary, and social embodiments of monstrosity.
Every fictional monster has its origins, and more often than not these lie in widespread anxieties about social and economic stability. As Annalee Newitz puts it in her study of monster narratives in U.S. popular culture,
In its opening scenes, The Host offers multiple genealogies for its amphibious monster. The first of these is based on an incident that occurred in 2000, when Albert McFarland, the U.S. military mortician at the Yongsan camp, ordered two assistants to dump about 80 liters of formaldehyde into a sewage system that drains into the Han River. The incident outraged South Koreans, and has often been cited by demonstrators protesting against U.S. military presence and by environmental activists. One Korean Times editorial, for example, notes that the Han River “supplies drinking water for over 10 million citizens,” and highlights the symbolic violence inherent in this act, asking,
McFarland’s light punishment—a thirty day suspension by the United States Forces Korea and a $4,000 fine by South Korea’s Ministry of Justice—further angered protestors who felt that Koreans and their environment were “disposable” to occupying U.S. forces.
The formaldehyde dumping scene in The Host emphasizes the U.S. scientist’s awareness of—and disdain for—the regulations he is violating. The first words of the movie—“Mr. Kim, I hate dust more than anything”—draw attention to the incommensurability between cleaning up the military morgue and dumping toxic waste in the river. The doctor orders a Korean assistant to dump the bottles of “dirty formaldehyde” because “every bottle is coated with layers of dust.” When the assistant protests that the chemicals will end up in the river, the mortician responds,
The dialogue caricatures not only McFarland but also the cynical discourse of liberal universalism, which claims to be “broad-minded” while allowing and even initiating the despoiling of vulnerable environments and their inhabitants.
The Host’s widely noted anti-Americanism should also be situated in the context of ongoing demonstrations against U.S. military bases. On May 4, just before the July release of Gwoemul in South Korea, a demonstration protesting the expansion of a U.S. military base in the vicinity of Pyeongtaek was violently confronted by the South Korean military, who injured over two hundred people. In following weeks, demonstrations against the U.S. military presence spread. Two thousand students marched from Seoul to Pyeongtaek, chanting,
Even the closures of many USFK bases were criticized by environmental groups, since South Korea accepted the closures despite eighteen months of debate about the environmental conditions of the sites (Slavin). In all these cases, the Korean government and military made clear concessions to the U.S., whether by suppressing protestors or by failing to exact adequate redress for environmental harm.
Immediately following the formaldehyde scene, Bong provides a second origin story for the mutated river monster at the center of his film. Years after the toxic dumping incident, and a few months after a miniscule mutant creature bites the hand of a man fishing in the river, a businessman commits suicide by jumping from a bridge into the Han River. Situated between the appearance of the small creature a few months earlier and the emergence of the full-fledged beast in the following scenes, this suicide seems to play a key role in the monster’s prodigious growth. The businessman may be the first human meal it eats. Furthermore, since Bong notes that such suicides in the Han River happen “almost every day,” the monster’s growth may be directly correlated to conditions affecting the Korean economy and those whose livelihood depends upon it (Bong, “Audio Commentary”). South Korean newspapers in the last decade have referred to suicides by unemployed or bankrupt businessmen as “IMF suicides,” linking the causes of their despair to the neoliberal structural adjustment program imposed by the IMF after the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. In light of this second origin story for Bong’s monster, which links it to the epidemic of suicides resulting from South Korea’s decimated economy, The Host turns out to be an allegory not just of U.S.military occupation but also of neoliberal market reforms.
Bong is not alone in making films about the post-crisis economic situation: Oldboy (2003), directed by his friend Park Chan-Wook, dramatized the dismantling of Korean business conglomerates (chaebols) guided by the state and also included a digressive episode in which the protagonist encounters a suicidal businessman (see Jeon). Rob Wilson, in a study of carnal and violent eruptions of “killer capitalism” in post-9/11 Korean cinema, identifies Park as a leading practitioner of
The liberalization of trade, labor markets, and investments imposed by the IMF in the wake of the 1997 crisis has had devastating effects on South Korea’s economy. State-guided corporations and banks (whose collective success prior to the crisis had been touted as the “Miracle on the Han River”) were rapidly privatized, and businesses stayed afloat by cutting jobs. Economists James Crotty and Kang-Kook Lee attribute South Korea’s social and economic instability to an influx of finance capital that has made “[t]he Korean stock market…a gambling casino for foreigners” interested in “short-term speculative profit rather than long-term growth” (671, 673). Sociologist Walden Bello adds that, since 1997,
The nation’s “inadequate” welfare system (Crotty and Lee 671), widespread unemployment, and unraveling social fabric suggest that, in economic as well as environmental terms, neoliberalism has transformed Korean citizens into “disposable people.” Austerity measures imposed by the IMF have not only decimated social services in South Korea, but also damaged its environment:
The businessman’s suicide associates the film’s overgrown, preternaturally mobile, computer-generated (by The Orphanage and Weta Digital, international firms based in California and New Zealand), voracious, flexible, and acrobatic beast with the post-crisis attrition of welfare and the means of social reproduction. The monster may have literally fed on the skyrocketing number of suicides precipitated by the dismantling of the pre-1997 state-guided economy.
These two originary scenes help account for the English-language title of Bong’s film in international screening: whereas Gwoemul is best translated as “monster” or “creature,” the much more ambiguous term “host” encompasses, among other things, questions about international hospitality. “The Host” blurs the distinction between the monster and the society it ravages. From its inception the movie asks: Isn’t South Korea playing host, arguably against the interests of its citizenry, to the U.S. military and to foreign investors who have no interest in the nation’s social fabric? Despite its incompetence and palpable absence when it comes to confronting the monster, the Korean military plays an active role in the film in enforcing a quarantine and suppressing demonstrations by its own citizens. Since the word “host” combines notions of hospitality, hostility, and armed forces, it significantly blurs the distinctions between the creature, the Korean army, and the nation’s hospitality to foreign influences. The Host is not the first monster movie to allegorize economic and social ailments. However, the international scope of the film’s satire calls for an analysis that triangulates between international interventions, the South Korean state, and the family of average (or below-average) Korean citizens who do battle with the monster. The following sections of this paper examine how national and international responses to the threat posed by the monster are structured by a pursuit of “immunization” that neglects and hinders processes of social reproduction and thus exacerbates already existing risks of economic, environmental, and public health crises.