Bong Joon-ho – The Host
By Justin Waters
With Bong Joon-ho’s latest Palme d’Or winning film “Parasite” opening recently, we continue our celebratory look back at this wonderfully vibrant director’s earlier works.
It started with dust. Dusty bottles to be exact. In the year 2000 a South Korean mortician working for the U.S. government in Seoul was ordered to dump a large amount of formaldehyde by his superiors. The reason? The bottles were dusty. The formaldehyde in them was fine but when you are running a mortuary for the US military aesthetics are important–I guess. The twenty gallons of formaldehyde may have passed through a wastewater sewage system on the base as the army maintained in its apology for the incident or it may have been poured down the drain and directly to the Han river– the main source of drinking water for the twelve million people living in Seoul– as the Green Korea group contends; either way it sparked off protests against the US presence in South Korea and flamed tensions between the two countries which have not entirely settled. Bong Joon-ho looks at this fraught moment of political tension and environmental damage and saw the makings of a great monster movie.
The Host opens with the formaldehyde incident shot with increasing tension as the camera glides past the endless empty bottles that have already been poured down the drain. Two men fishing in the Han River capture and then lose a strange mutated fish. A man poised to commit suicide by jumping in the Han river, a disturbingly common event in Seoul, notices something dark in the water. Whatever it was is not enough to make him reconsider his fate, he plunges off the bridge. Bong Joon-ho hasn’t shown anything of the monster, the sense of dread created from the images of the Han River are reminiscent of Jaws before the shark appears.
Running a food stand which caters to tourists and visitors who want to spend their day enjoying the sun on the banks of the Han River is Park Hie-bong (Byun Hee-bong) an elderly father of three. Helping him is his slow witted, constantly sleeping son Park Gang-Doo (Song Kang-ho). Gang-Doo’s daughter Park Hyun-seo (Ko Asung) also stops by to see her father and grandfather. Her mother is hardly mentioned and it is difficult to imagine Gang-Doo having a serious relationship with anyone other than his father. Scarcely have we been introduced to these characters when the monster appears and chaos erupts.
It is a masterful sequence of frantic action, visual inventiveness, horror, and humor we have come to expect from Bong Joon-ho. The monster runs, stumbles, slips all over the river bank as it crushes bystanders, eats others, and carries some around with its long tail. Gang-Doo tries ineffectively to stop the monster and is aided by Sergeant Donald (David Anselmo) who has the classic American action hero look–built body, blonde hair. Later, the media will champion him as a heroic martyr while casting Gang-Doo as a criminal. It seems Sergeant Donald gets the praise mostly because of his looks and his involvement in the US armed forces, Gang-Doo does not physically fit the archetypal hero mold. A bit of commentary on America’s presentation of itself in a film filled with skepticism of America’s involvement in South Korean society. As the attack ends Park Hyun-seo is carried off and, presumably, eaten by the monster.
Gathered in what looks like a high school auditorium are the survivors of the attack and mourners for those who have been taken by the beast. The rest of the family arrive to pay their respects to a picture of Hyun-seo. Park Nam-il (Park Hae-il), Gang-Doo’s brother arrives to berate Gang-Doo over a stupid mistake. In college he was part of the youth protest movement, passionately trying to change the world and throwing molotovs at police. Now unable to find a job he spends his time drinking heavily. Park Nam-Joo (Doona Bae), Gang-Doo’s sister, seems to be the most successful of the group. Just earlier in the day she had competed for a gold medal in archery at the Olympics. She too has a flaw however, she is slow; physically hesitant she could only claim a bronze medal after being unable to complete her last shot in the time allotted. Together they cry, we feel for them, they cry more, we still feel for them, they cry even more and roll around on the ground sobbing and flailing, we watch with hysterical laughter. Another of Bong Joon-ho’s masterful use of tone, taking us from tears to laughter in a matter of moments.
That night everyone is informed the monster carries some sort of parasite and everyone in the auditorium needs to be quarantined. When Gang-Doo naively admits the blood of the creature got on his face he immediately becomes the subject of intense scrutiny. Everyone is ordered to follow the government mandated quarantine. Without proper explanation of what the parasite is or information on what is being done about it, Park Hie-bong sums it up, “If the government says so, we have to accept it.”
While being held in confinement Gang-Doo gets a call from his daughter. She is not dead. She is trapped inside a massive sewer. Before he can get anything more specific the call cuts out. The family tries to find her by going to the authorities but everyone thinks they are crazy and refuses to help. The cop they talk to tells them how difficult it is to trace calls and they will not just do it “for anybody.” It will later turn out to be extremely easy to trace the call and figure out where Hyun-seo is. What is happening becomes obvious. These people are at the bottom of the barrel. They are poor and they are not American, therefore they deserve no help from the authorities. Even a well meaning bribe is rebuffed. What do you do if you cannot even pay for help? You take matters into your own hands as the family does by making a quick escape from the hospital, quick by everyone but Nam-Joo who is unable to even pick up the pace with the cops on her tail. They set out to find the girl themselves. Their main adversary will not be the monster, it will be the South Korean and–mostly–the American government’s response to the monster.
That response seems to be simple, poison it. At first we have trucks spraying large white clouds of disinfectant over everything. Later it will be the United States new chemical weapon named Agent Yellow, a thinly veiled allusion to the Vietnam War era defoliant Agent Orange that poisoned countless soldiers and Vietnamese civilians. Agent Yellow is dispersed from a large yellow contraption that looks a lot like the monster when it is first seen hanging from a bridge and seems to do little to the creature but causes the human bystanders near it to bleed from their ears and vomit blood. The irony of a creature created from poisons released by government incompetence being fought by more poisons released by the same government without considering the harm it will cause on the people they are trying to protect is not lost on us.
Keeping the movie emotionally engaging is the family. It’s clear Bong Joon-ho loves these characters. It is touching when each of their major faults are turned into strengths as they focus on saving Hyun-seo. The failed college graduate finds his student protesting experience to come in very handy. The slow archer finds a way to make her shots quickly under the most intense pressure of her life. Even Gang-Doo’s constant sleep comes back to aide him. Their story is never less than touching and Joon-ho shows that heroes are everywhere, even at the bottom of the barrel.
Once it is over and the fight with the monster has ended with success and great tragedy, the surviving members have found a way to carve out some small bit of happiness for themselves. As they eat, a news report plays on the television where US army generals are explaining what exactly happened with the monster and the disease it was thought to have spread. It sounds like their official apology but we do not know for sure as it is quickly switched off so dinner can be enjoyed with peace. It is a far cry from the father’s earlier, “If the government says so, have to accept it.” That, coupled with the gun that Gang-Doo now keeps on him in case another monster should rise from the Han seems to signal Joon-ho’s final thoughts on the issue. If our government lies to us we will quit listening and start fending for ourselves.