By Cheryl Eddy
Director and cowriter Bong Joon-ho insists that The Host is not really anti-American, and I’d agree. More accurately, it offers an incisive take on US foreign policy, echoing 2004’s double punch of Fahrenheit 9/11 and Team America: World Police. The key difference is that The Host isn’t homegrown, so it’s not dabbling in self-satire. Instead, it reflects how an outside nation (in this case, South Korea) views the US obsession with controlling absolutely everything on the planet.
The Host approaches the theme by depicting how a foreign city in crisis reacts to a pudgy, galloping sea monster birthed by American neurosis. The film opens in the morgue of a US army base in South Korea, where the Yankee in charge instructs his Korean underling to discard hundreds of gallons of toxic liquid. "I hate dust more than anything," he explains, wiping dirt from the glass bottles. When his assistant protests, pointing out that the chemicals might end up polluting the local river, the American won’t listen. "Pour them right down the drain," he says.
The best part is that this really happened, kind of. A January 2005 Korea Times article reported the following: "A local appeals court on Tuesday sentenced Albert McFarland, an American civilian employee of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), to six months imprisonment, with the term suspended for two years, for instructing his subordinates to dump a toxic substance into the Han River in Seoul in 2000." The toxic substance was 227 liters of formaldehyde, which is more than enough to freak out environmentalists and probably quite close to the real amount needed to create some kind of monstrous Han River mutant or at least inspire Bong to dream one up. It’s not as dramatic as Godzilla‘s nuclear birth, but it’s plenty sinister nonetheless.
The next American in the film surfaces right when the monster does. He just so happens to be an out-of-uniform US soldier who helps The Host‘s schlubby antihero, Gang-du (Kang-ho Song), brain the creature with a traffic sign. Turns out, thanks for nothin’, dude: as news broadcasts inform us throughout the film, the soldier becomes mysteriously ill with a virus attributed (by the US military, naturally) to the mutant. That the creature represents some kind of bioterror smacks of propaganda; it’s made all the more suspicious by the fact that Gang-du, who endured a face full of sea-monster blood, remains completely healthy.
The Host‘s central concern is Gang-du’s family, who spend the film frantically searching for the thirtysomething slacker’s much-beloved daughter after she’s snatched by the monster. Bong insists his movie isn’t trying to point fingers at any specific targets but instead is framing its conflict as more of an us-versus-them dig at society (see "God of Monster," page 58). But The Host does emphasize America’s meddling military presence in Korea. Who else would advocate such over-the-top quarantine and security measures, other than the country that won’t even let you stash a shampoo bottle in your carry-on? Who else would greet violence with violence, plotting destruction (without spoiling the plot, let’s just say even more dangerous chemicals are involved) and blithely ignoring peace-minded protesters? America … fuck yeah!
So far, no American fascists you know, the people who got their knickers in a knot over the Dixie Chicks have come out against The Host; presumably, Korean monster movies are far removed from any Fox Newsfueled radars. A Wikipedia article on The Host pointed out a particularly amusing reaction, though: it seems North Koreans (memorably mocked in Team America) are diggin’ the film’s perceived slam against the United States. According to the cited Yonhap News article, dated November 2006, "North Korea gave a rare compliment to a South Korean blockbuster movie on Thursday, upholding its critical stance toward the U.S. troops stationed in the South and dubbing them the ‘monster of the Han River.’ "
It gets better: "’The movie portrays realistically and through impersonation that the American troops occupying South Korea are the monster that steals people’s lives and destroys their happiness,’ North Korea’s weekly magazine Tongil Sinbo said in its latest edition."
Obviously, Bong’s intention when making The Host was not to stoke North Korea’s already abundant hatred of America. (It’s a testament to the film’s huge home-country success that even its pop culturedeprived neighbors took note of it.) Still, the film makes an effective point about monsters who invade where they’re not wanted and the undeniable amount of devastation they leave behind. That Bong wraps his message in the tentacles of a sea monster (and a damn enjoyable movie, to boot) makes it all the more potent. *
Opens March 9
Embarcadero Center Cinema
One Embarcadero Center (mezzanine level), SF
2113 Kittredge, Berk.