If you thought a black comedy about a toxic, mutated monster on the loose in Seoul would be a complete escape from your reality, think again.
Before Parasite, Korean auteur and Oscar-winner Bong Joon-ho released his first crossover hit with 2006’s The Host. An uncommon genre in his home country, Bong has said people initially laughed when he first decided to make monster films. But in spite of the scepticism, The Host became the highest-grossing Korean film that year and a surprising American hit, garnering fans such as director Quentin Tarantino.
Monsters have always been prevalent in Bong’s films – figuratively and literally. In his crime thriller Memories of Murder, police are on the hunt for a serial killer that can’t be found and in Okja, the monster is not the giant, pig-like creature at the centre of the narrative but a multi-national corporation headed by Tilda Swinton. In The Host we may have a typical monster but just like all of Bong’s films, the villain is never definitive. I knew when I pressed play on The Host it wasn’t going to be just a typical series of superficial CGI moments and one-liners. And thank god for that.
Inspired by a real-life case in 2000 in which a US morgue official was convicted of dumping hazardous chemicals into the Han River in South Korea, the film’s opening scene is of an American scientist ordering his Korean subordinate to pour a large amount of formaldehyde down the lab drain.
Fast forward a few years and we are introduced to our protagonists, the dysfunctional Park family, who own a little convenience stall alongside the river: patriarchal grandfather Hee-bong; his lazy, buffoon son Gang-du (played by Bong’s frequent collaborator Song Kang-ho); Gang-du’s charming daughter Hyun-seo; and her aunt and uncle, archery champion Nam-joo and failed activist turned unemployed alcoholic, Nam-il. Within minutes, the chemically mutated creature enters the screen, wreaking havoc on the river’s busy thoroughfare. The beloved Hyun-seo is swallowed by the monster and taken down into the depths of the sewerage system.
The US military immediately overtakes the city – a critique on the lingering American presence in Korea – forcing a lockdown and everyone into quarantine (sound familiar?) due to the suspicion that the monster has unleashed a deadly virus. In quarantine, Gang-du receives a muffled call from Hyun-seo’s phone and the family becomes convinced she’s still alive. The authorities won’t listen, so the family breaks out, becoming fugitives as they attempt to rescue her, and that’s where the story really kicks off.
Taking inspiration from Spielberg’s Jaws and M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, Bong focuses on humanising the “loser” family rather than the otherworldly monster to elicit powerful drama and to create unlikely heroes of the flawed, complex and ultimately relatable Parks who hold the moral compass.
The family is also the through line that allows Bong to tie in his not-so-subtle political views around issues such as the convenient “weapons of mass destruction” claims justifying the war in Iraq to the use of Agent Orange by US forces in the Vietnam War.
Perhaps the most startling social commentary in the film is the eerily prophetic event of quarantine. From a city in lockdown being advised of flu-like symptoms, to the government grappling with an unknown “monster”, the film directly taps into our current strange existence in Covid-19 times. For me, it all culminates in one comedic scene of masked citizens waiting for a green light and an unmasked man coughing and spitting loudly, causing everyone to tense up and edge away.
An ambitious film that covers a lot of ground, The Host is funny, entertaining and poignant, and the CGI holds up pretty well for a mid-2000s film. Bong may have left a few questions unanswered, but it was definitely his plan to make us reflect on our present situation through the film’s messages long after the credits roll.
• The Host is available to stream on SBS On Demand
Source: The Guardian