South Korea 2013
The American actor Scott Wilson played the wise veterinarian in The Walking Dead. He was cast against type. The film In The Heat Of The Night had him debut as a not too bright suspected murderer. Wilson became famous as one of the two troubled killers in the movie adaptation of In Cold Blood. After that, Scott Wilson, who could act but lacked star appeal, worked and survived.
Wilson appears in the opening scene of The Host. He is an American military mortician who orders toxic poison to be dumped in the Han River. Because he is old, Wilson is now able to play men who have power. But a face is a face, and Wilson is still useful for the vacant stares of those without pity and understanding. As a powerless angry nutcase from the South, he kills an innocent family. His powerful equivalent destroys the environment and creates a catastrophe. The objective of the mortician is to sweep away bottles that have been covered by offensive dust. There is a thin line between black comedy and grim irony. The Host crosses that line often. The Wilson character in the film is based on an American mortician called McFarland who dumped eighty litres of formaldehyde into the sewage system that drains into the Han River. McFarland was suspended for thirty days by the American military and fined $4000 by the South Korean Government. Political protest followed.
The Host was a box office success. The monster is a versatile giant fish that can invade the land. The film is a reminder that Jaws was first conceived by Spielberg as a horror movie containing political comment. Jaws echoes Enemy Of The People by Ibsen but, as always with Spielberg, his politics surrender to a bleeding ’70s liberal heart that wants nothing more than for people to be nicer. The grievances in The Host are specific. The film protests against the presence of United States masters and the subservience of the South Korean Government and business, the elite that values the American dollar more than the welfare of its population.
In the first scene the dangerous American treats the environment with contempt, and in the second a suicidal businessman throws himself into the Han River. Just before he jumps, the businessman notices something dark, not just the shadow of the monster but the threat from the rotten deep at the heart of South Korean society.
These two scenes reference American imperialism and the IMF 1997 imposition of neoliberalism when some South Korean businessmen really did throw themselves in the Han River. Since the IMF imposition, over 15% of the population now live in poverty, most of them are old. Before 1997 the figure was 3.1%. Suicides have increased but the rich are very rich, and Western consumers can buy cheap TVs. So it goes.
The plot of The Host is often wayward, happy not to worry about something as tedious as credibility. There is a willingness to mix genres, as if the director will not be restricted by American genre traditions. We have monster invasions and Hitchcock chase scenes. Much is unexplained. The hero leaves his yellow body bag, and no one interferes.
This in the film, though, is clear.
An American creates the monster through dumping toxic waste and the American Government and a tame UN shift blame on to South Korea, The United States military helps to subdue the monster through the use of Agent Yellow, a poison that cannot be used in the American homeland because of its risk to life and vegetation. Concern for what has happened to the American victim causes the South Korean Government to overreact and view its population as an enemy equal to the monster. Spokesmen issue orders without debate and wear head to toe protective clothing that make them look sinister. Media announcements are propaganda messages. The hospital is an institution designed to control people rather than cure. The creepy but self-righteous American doctor is content to perform a brain operation without an effective anaesthetic for the patient. Park Gang-du, whose daughter has been kidnapped by the host, is suspected of being infected by a virus from the monster.
Like the shark in Jaws, the host creates panic and scatters crowds. When the host leaves the water looking for food, its legs allow it to race across land. Most of the time the fish has a human victim half-hanging from its mouth. Although everyone runs away, Park Gang-du and his family escape from the hospital to chase the monster and to find Park Hyun-seo, the granddaughter who they realise is still alive.
The family of Park Gang-du is dysfunctional. Park Gang-du has a mental disorder that prevents him from staying awake for long periods. The grim irony for Gang-du is that the anaesthetic fails to send him to sleep. His brother is an unemployed graduate, and his sister a talented but flawed archer. She wins the national bronze medal but, despite her ability, misses the gold. Grandfather works hard but does not understand why his family fails to succeed. His sympathy drains him. Granddaughter Park Hyun-seo appears to have potential. She is alert and sensible and wears a smart school uniform. But the unemployed brother wears a business suit. We are not convinced about the future of anyone in this family.
The members of the family are distinct but the film is not a drama about character. The grandfather ensures economic survival for his children but he cannot nurture independence. Parents, like imperial masters, are obliged to overestimate themselves, their capabilities and their achievements. The grandfather is no different. He fails when he thinks he can imitate an American hero. Unlike tough cowboys the grandfather miscounts the bullets in his gun. This is his grim irony. The unemployed brother envies his friend who has a job with a telecommunications firm. But the friend has debt of 70,000, and all of his friends are keen to help him betray the unemployed brother. The family of Park Gang-du succeed against the monster when they confront it without the paternal grandfather but with the help of a homeless father and the American military. How they succeed is their grim irony, and their exceptional success contains another bitter surprise.
Bong Joon-ho directed The Host. His earlier film Memories of Murder is supposedly one of the twenty favourites of Quentin Tarantino. The taste of Tarantino is no recommendation but Memories of Murder is a classic movie about a serial killer. It dwells on failure, compromise and how the past haunts the present. All of it is shaped by life under an authoritarian government. But for Tarantino form rather than content is important. The Host has plenty of style. The suicide of the businessman is a fine moment and an example of superior realism created by special effects. We see arms and legs flail as the man heads to the water. The fish is a splendid monster and also a tribute to CGI. In quiet moments this lonely brute can be sympathetic but mainly it repels and terrifies. The monster moves with real pace, and this adds to the impressive crowd scenes. The soundtrack is as aggressive as the monster and it explodes when the monster appears. There is plenty of rain in the film but when there is sunshine it is realised in deliberately bright colour. The corrupted environment is both poisonous and oppressive. Images range from the ramshackle to the dazzling and they reflect how Park Gang-du and his family combine the pathetic and the heroic.
The crowds on the banks of the Han River may echo the people in a painting by Georges Seurat but the wharf hides sinister concrete and deep sewers that are soon revealed. Like the dark under the river, this is the reality that has to be acknowledged. The bridge, that today still attracts suicides and the victims of neoliberalism, is seen from dramatic angles. The style of The Host provides satisfaction but the film works best when it takes itself seriously.
When the monster first appears, the day-trippers throw food and junk into a river that is already damaged. These are over-fed innocents unaware of the effects of their consumerism on the environment and other creatures. Doom will follow disaster. The faith of Americans that they can improve and save the world through market economics is undermined by the first victim of the monster. He is a courageous, naive and idealistic American who loses a limb and, subsequently, his life. Even the meaning of the title is complex. It refers to South Korea and its accommodation of American masters, to the people, who permit exploitation by self-interested businessmen and the damage to the environment, and also the lonely monster, obliged to separate children from its adult human food and keep them for company. Grim irony, black humour, special effects, visual style, violence and drama can clash but, if they did, none of it prevented The Host from breaking box office records in a less than perfect South Korea. Here is hoping that some of the 15% living in poverty managed to see the film.
Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His latest book and compilation of horror stories is called Nightmares Ahead. Published by Red Rattle Books and praised by critics, it is available here.
If you want to read more about his travels click here.