Monster Hunting for Social Commentary and Context in 'The Host'
Guest writer Sonya Moore explores the political context of Bong Joon-ho's 2006 film "The Host"
On the surface, the plot of Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 film “The Host,” could simply be described as, “A family bands together to save a girl from a monster that rises from the Han River.” However, in true Bong Joon-ho fashion, the film is packed full of cultural notes, commentary, and interpretations.
The Korean title of “The Host” is “괴물" (“Monster”/”Gwoemul”). Though the single-word is straightforward, it’s easily left up to interpretation. What is “the monster” in “The Host?” Even though there is a literal monster running around wreaking havoc, for most of the movie the Park family in the film is shown fighting against various very non-monster things. The characterization and situations that the family are put into could lead one to hypothesize that maybe the monster is in actuality the hyper-competitive society and system they live in.
The film emphasizes that the Park family are not superheroes. From the beginning, they’re shown as underdogs who really are the last people you’d bet money on fighting against a monster. Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) and his father Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong run a shop by the Han River selling snacks and beverages. Their very livelihood is providing a service to those who are there for their leisure. Gang-du’s brother, Nam-il (Park Hae-il), is an unemployed former student activist. And their sister, Nam-joo (Bae Doona), is a national medalist archer who has a problem with easily cracking when under pressure. During a competition shown early in the film, she wins the bronze medal for this reason — because she misses a critical shot.
After the Park family are taken to the hospital for observation — after Gang-du admits to being splattered by the monster’s blood in the monster’s first appearance — he receives a phone call from his daughter Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung), who he thought died in the monster attack. However, when they speak to a police officer to try and explain the situation to get help, the disinterested police officer smirks and belittles them. When Nam-il asks why the police can’t track Hyun-seo’s phone to find out where she is, the cop responds, “That’s not something we do everyday just for anyone.” And that’s what the Park family are. As “just anyone,” the very societal structures that everyday people are supposed to depend on let them down, if not outright hinder them. They’re forced to escape from quarantine to go look for Hyun-seo.
By having to rely on their own wits and what limited means they have the family ends up being branded as outlaws. The audience is left to think about how the Park family’s story could’ve been neatly wrapped up in a few minutes if the police officer simply took their concerns seriously, tracked the phone, and helped locate Hyun-seo. The problem of the monster could’ve been solved too, since finding Hyun-seo would’ve meant discovering the monster’s lair. But unfortunately, as all too frequently in reality, small issues and everyday people are lost or fall through the cracks.
This point is revisited later in the movie when the American scientist comes to examine a recaptured Gang-du and asks him about his claims of Hyun-seo still being alive. “Jesus, why didn’t you contact the police or the military?” the doctor asks Gang-du. And in one of the more frustrating and heart-breaking scenes of the film, Gang-du is reduced to tears as he declares that he did, but nobody listens to him. And as if to reinforce the point, as Gang-du tearfully tries to explain that nobody listens to him, the doctor’s translator continues to talk over him with his translation, leading Gang-du to cry out in frustration, “Please, stop interrupting me. What I’m saying is important too, so why won’t anyone listen to me?” Because even when it seems like someone is finally listening to him, they aren’t. In fact, this scientist quickly pushes this aside to get to the job he needs to do, which is to lobotomize Gang-du. Besides these depictions of useless and indifferent bureaucracy, the characters depict a family that are the product of the society they are in with nods to specific South Korean cultural points.
Hee-bong himself seems to be a character who is made to reflect attitudes of an older generation. At his age in South Korea, Hee-bong would be someone who could’ve been alive during the Korean War, lived through the authoritarian leadership of Park Chung-hee, the coup d’etat and civil unrest of the 1980s, and the country’s rapid development. He’s someone used to uncertainty and survival by any means necessary as shown in several instances. Early in the movie, when the Park family are taken to the hospital, Gang-du worries if he’ll die, and Hee-bong quickly shuts him down to be quiet and tells him, “Just do as the doctors say.”
In the scene with the police officer, he quickly interjects as Nam-il gets heated with the officer and tries to appeal to his authority. “Sir, how about us gentlemen have a talk. They’re just kids,” he says as he pulls the officer aside and tries to offer him money as a bribe. At the same time, he has no qualms in breaking out with the family and using what meager means he has to arrange for a shady purchase of firearms, a vehicle, and a map to go search for Hyun-seo when appeals to authority don’t work.
While Nam-il’s character seems like a belligerent unemployed loser who can’t let go of the past, this historical context gives a more nuanced view of his character and what he stands for, which is disillusionment and lost ideology in the face of reality. In a scene where the family is watching a news report about their escape, Nam-il complains about why he’s not mentioned in the news and says, “I sacrificed myself for the democratization of this country, and the assholes won’t even give me a job.”
Nam-il, whose first appearance shows him stumbling into the scene holding an empty bottle of soju, is specifically a character who depicts “The 386 Generation” of Korea. A term that was coined in the 1990s, it was inspired by the naming convention of Intel’s 386 processor and referred to those in their thirties at the time, who attended university in the 1980s, and were born in the 1960s. The empty soju bottle is actually a Chekhov’s gun of sorts.
During this time, university students organized and actively participated in the democratization movements of the 80s and faced violent suppression from the military during protests and demonstrations. Students armed with molotov cocktails was a lasting image of protests during that time. In an interesting turn of characterization, Nam-il ends up being able to use his student protest to good use. The qualities that made him seem like a loser end up making him useful. He’s able to call up an old university friend who works at a cell phone carrier company to help track down Hyun-seo’ phone. When this friend eventually betrays him, Nam-il easily evades capture, because as his friend warns the detectives, “That bastard’s a genius at getting away.” Nam-il is also exceptionally skilled at making molotov cocktails and is ready to face off against the monster with it.
The 386 Generation is also defined as the generation that, despite their activism during the 80s, ended up joining the status quo by the 2000s, with some of the younger generation even blaming them for playing a hand in creating a hyper-competitive environment full of economic instability and job instability. While Nam-il was one of those who fought for democratization, only to be left out of the society that came out of it, Nam-il’s friend, a fellow activist, did join the status quo, only to lose the progressive ideas he once had in the reality of being part of the rat race. Both show different trajectories for a society that didn’t live up to ideals.
Nam-joo’s characterization as a national medalist in archery is an interesting choice when taking into account the role of sports heroes in Korean history. And modern archery is a sport that South Korea dominates in. But she doesn’t do well under pressure, and she wins a bronze medal as shown in the beginning of the film. A setup that makes her someone who struggles under hyper-competition.
The motifs of competition and financial instability also manifest in the friend who betrays Nam-il. When he first appears, he’s already complaining about his lack of money. When Nam-il asks him if his salary is around 60-70 million won (around $50-60,000), the friend sourly responds, “My credit card debt is 60-70 million won.” This exchange hints at the possibility that Nam-il’s friend probably either has a lot of expenses that his salary does not cover, or perhaps a spending habit that comes with how modern society encourages consumption. Either way, both represent financial instability that comes from competition. And sure enough, he snitches on Nam-il for the bounty out on him and his family. Even in the scene that reveals this friend’s betrayal, he’s seen asking the detectives about how much in taxes will be taken from the reward money.
Gang-du is depicted as clumsy and not that smart, but Hee-bong explains to Nam-il and Nam-joo that they shouldn’t pick on his brother so much because Gang-du used to be a very bright boy. The reason for his change is because Hee-bong himself was neglectful and didn’t look after him as a child. He’s someone who doesn’t live up to potential due to lack of support and ends up left behind by capitalism — easy to dismiss and ignore because of the way he comes off and his place in society.
The family finally defeats the monster together in the end, but it’s not an entirely uplifting ending. The fight itself is choreographed in a way that’s not triumphant, but painful and clumsy, as if to drill in the point that they are constantly struggling to create solutions for themselves. And while the monster is defeated, the ending isn’t an entirely happy one. Hyun-seo dies; there’s no fanfare or ticker tape parade for the family. Gang-du returns to minding the shop without Hee-bong, who was killed by the monster earlier in the film.
The end of the movie comes back to where it all began, once again commenting on the Park family’s relationship to the world. Though it’s unknown what has happened to Nam-il or Nam-joo, showing Gang-du back at the shop implies that they probably weren’t recognized for their role in killing the monster. They are once again forgotten and ignored as the news talks about the aftermath of the monster attacks in the background.
In the final scenes, Gang-du is shown peering out into the dark, snowy night for a moment and warily watches the river that isn’t visible in the dark. He thinks he hears something and reaches for a gun, only to finally convince himself nothing is out there. Despite the monster’s defeat, Gang-du is living his life knowing that a threat is still out there somewhere in the dark. Whether it’s against a river monster, or the monster of a system that fails people, and he’s resorted to feeling like he can’t trust anyone but himself.