Since at this point in this election cycle I am sick to death of politics – the whole “Hillary vs. Bernie” thing has gotten me into a seemingly endless pissy mood, so I don’t have anything humorous to offer, either – and since I am not feeling especially philosophical, I will write today briefly about one of my favorite movies, the 2006 Korean monster film “The Host,” directed by Bong Joon-Ho.
I like this film for a variety of reasons, and perhaps the most significant reason is simple nostalgia. I was living in Gimpo, South Korea in 2006 when this movie was released, and I think I watched it in the theater, but if not I at least watched it while I was living in Korea.
The majority of the film is set in or near Yeouido, an area in Seoul on the northern side of the Han River. From Gimpo, it was about a 20-30 minute bus ride (depending on traffic) to Songjeong Station on the purple subway line. From there, Yeouido is just a few subway stops away. I went there quite a few times during my time in Korea, and it’s a pretty peaceful place to visit.
The main characters in the film are Pak Hee-bong, an older Korean man who owns a snack stand in Yeouido, and his family: his oldest son Gang-du, who helps him at the snack stand, his daughter Nam-joo, who is a competitive archer, his younger son Nam-il, who is an unemployed college graduate and budding alcoholic, and his granddaughter (Gang-du’s daughter) Hyun-seo, a seventh grader.
I have purchased snacks and beer from stands like the one Hee-bong owns. Yeouido is a really nice place to hang out with your friends, or to go on a cheap date, or for that matter to go by yourself to relax or to read. Those steps you see in the movie, the ones that go down from the mostly flat, grassy park area down to the Han River? I have walked down those steps, or at least I have walked down steps like that in Yeouido. There are many sets of those steps that run along the riverbank. And anyways, I have sat at the bottom of these steps, down by the river, and read. I believe the book I read most of down by the Han River was “The Te of Piglet,” by Benjamin Hoff, a sequel to his more well-known book “The Tao of Pooh.”
But I am digressing, as usual.
What I want the reader to take away from my digression is that Yeouido is a very peaceful, relaxed sort of place. Families go there for picnics and that sort of thing. Sitting in the park in Yeouido and looking across the Han River, it’s easy to forget that roughly half of metropolitan Seoul is directly behind you. The bustling streets and subway stations you just went through to get here seem far away, something that you might run into way over there on the southern side of the Han River, but nothing that would ever bother you here in Yeouido. (As long as you don’t turn around, ha ha.)
But this idyllic area is the setting for most of “The Host.” And before I get too far into who and what “The Host” is, I first want to note that the Korean title of this movie is “Gwoemul” (괴물), and despite what the English subtitles on the DVD may try to tell you, “괴물”does not literally translate to “The Host,” it literally translates to “monster.”
The “monster” in the film is a gigantic (big enough to swallow a fully grown human whole) mutant fish monster thing that looks suspiciously like a big version of some sort of canned oyster or something that Gang-du eats about halfway through the film. If anyone knows what those things are called, I would appreciate it if they told me; I had to return “The Host” to the video store before I started writing this, so I can’t go back and look now.
This giant, multi-tailed, frog-footed, people-eating fish monster thing appears one day in Yeouido, first hanging bat-like from the underside of a bridge, then dropping down into the Han River, then rampaging around Yeouido eating people.
Where did this monster come from? The film’s opening scene gives the viewer an idea:
The film opens in a laboratory in Yongsan Garrison. Yongsan is the American military base in Seoul, in case you didn’t know. There are two scientists, one Korean, one American, and the American scientist outranks the Korean scientist. The American scientist laments that the lab is quite dusty, smearing dust on a bottle with his gloved finger. The American instructs the Korean (who, I think importantly, is not especially fluent in English) to dump all the contents of all the bottles down the drain. How this is supposed to get rid of the dust in the lab is a mystery; nonetheless the Korean scientist objects, in broken English, because dumping chemicals down the drain would cause the Han River to be polluted. The American scientist tells the Korean scientist “The Han River is very broad. Let’s be broad-minded about this.” After that, the American scientist leaves, and the Korean scientist is shown wearing a gas mask, dumping bottle after bottle of toxic chemicals down the drain, as a white fume cloud rises up out of the sink. If I’m not mistaken, the Korean scientist smudges the dust on the bottle he’s pouring, perhaps thinking “this lab is still gonna be pretty flipping dusty after I dump all these bottles out,” and a panning shot shows a couple hundred empty bottles on a table behind him.
The film then cuts to two Korean fishermen standing about knee-deep in the Han River, fishing. One of them captures a strange-looking fish of some sort which is never shown up close to the viewer. The man catches it in a little cup, shows it to his friend, then drops it, cup and all, after the thing he caught tried to bite his finger. He scrambles in the water for a second, upset, but he recovers the cup. It initially seems like maybe he was scrambling to catch the strange creature again, but he’s just scrambling for the cup: it was a gift from his daughter.
The next scene is of two younger Korean businessmen running toward an older Korean businessman who is about to commit suicide by jumping off of a bridge spanning the Han River. Why he is committing suicide is never mentioned, but he does manage to jump off of the bridge to his death before they reach him.
This man’s suicide is mentioned on television, inside the Pak family snack stand. Hyun-seo has just gotten home from school, and she and her father are watching her aunt Nam-joo in an archery competition. A news blurb mentions that the businessman’s body was found in the river…but that it had been bitten in half. Neither Hyun-seo nor Gang-du seem to pay any mind to this detail.
Gang-du is called away by his father because of a complaint from a customer: it seems that this customer was sold a dried o-jing-eo (squid) by Gang-du, one that had nine legs instead of the usual ten. An earlier scene showed Gang-du heating up an o-jing-eo on a burner, pulling off one of its legs and sticking it in his mouth as he did so. Hee-bong tells Gang-du that the legs are the most delicious part of an o-jing-eo, and that customers expect to get what they pay for, and stop eating the customers’ food. He hands Gang-du another o-jing-eo on a tray with three cans of beer and tells him to take it to the customers who ordered the o-jing-eo Gang-du ate part of, and to give all of it to them “service,” which in a Korean snack stand/restaurant sense means “free.”
That’s right, “free.” This is something else that makes me nostalgic for Korea: restaurants will often give customers little freebies now and then, especially regulars. I and the party I was in were often the recipient of a free bottle of Coke, or Pepsi, or Chilsung Cider (kinda like 7-Up), or beer…or maybe a bowl of rice, or an extra helping of something. And get this: tipping is not allowed. Don’t get me wrong, I tip my waiter or waitress here. I am not a cheap-ass, despite being (seemingly) perpetually broke-ass. And I usually round up with my tips. Fifteen percent is usually my minimum. But I can’t help but miss the “service.” And yeah, that’s what they say when they bring you an extra Pepsi or whatever, “service.” It’s written in Korean “서비스,” which reads “seo-bi-suh” phonetically.
Also, since I am waxing nostalgic, I would like to say that my mouth is watering for some good dried o-jing-eo right now. In all honesty, when I first got to Korea, walking past stands and carts and whatnot on the sidewalk selling o-jing-eo was kind of unpleasant. It has a very fishy sort of smell, and unless you’ve smelled it, you don’t really know what it smells like, and there’s no way for me to describe it to you. It’s a very strong smell, especially if you’re not used to it. And I don’t mean to denigrate Korea or Koreans or anything like that by saying so (admittedly I am a bit of a Korea-phile), but the smell actually made me gag before I got used to it. I had to hold my breath when I would walk past carts or whatever that sold it. But after a while, I found that wasn’t the case, and a while after that, some Korean friends got me to try some of it…and I have to say, it’s really good stuff. Of course there are variations in quality, but good o-jing-eo is just about the best thing in the world to nibble on when you’re drinking beer, or for that matter whenever you want to snack on something. It’s sort of like a fishier version of beef jerky, and it’s really good stuff, despite the aroma.
Where was I? Oh yeah: Gang-du takes the tray to the customers, who don’t pay any attention to him. They are looking at something hanging from the bridge, something that drops down into the river and swims underwater toward them. Gang-du tosses a can of beer at it, and which gets swallowed whole, and several other people (there’s one Pakistani guy I think in the crowd, but the rest are Korean) throw trash into the Han River, hoping to get the attention of the thing underwater.
Despite my being an anti-litterbug sort of person, I really like this scene. I think it sort of ties in to the opening scene where the American scientist tells the Korean scientist to dump all the toxic chemicals down the drain. The film seems to be saying “sure, Americans have helped to pollute the Han River, but we Koreans have done our fair share, also.”
I forgot to mention that the opening scene was based off of something that actually happened in 2000: a Korean mortician working for the U.S. military in Seoul dumped a whole bunch of formaldehyde down the drain. Maybe the “scientists” in the opening scene were supposed to be morticians, I dunno. At any rate something like that did actually happen.
The reason I think it was significant that the Korean scientist/mortician/whatever in the opening scene couldn’t speak English all that well is because it allows for a certain amount of ambiguity in where the blame lay: maybe the Korean scientist in the film misunderstood the American one.
And I don’t mean to appeal to any authority I may or may not have on the subject, but despite what anyone may think, there are in fact many Korean people who speak Korean as their native language and also speak English as fluently (or even more fluently) than many native English speakers. My characterization of this particular Korean scientist not speaking English well is based in my interactions with countless Korean folks of varied English ability. Most Korean folks I knew – even elementary-aged students – spoke English better than this fellow. And maybe that’s significant, maybe it isn’t; at any rate there’s another English-speaking Korean scientist who translates for Gang-du and another American scientist, and the other Korean scientist is perfectly fluent in English. I know it’s only speculation, nonetheless I think there was a reason the particular actor in the opening scene was cast, and also why he enunciated his lines the way he did: to throw a little ambiguity into the mix. Maybe I am all wet, I dunno.
At any rate, following the scene down by the river, where Koreans toss trash into it to taunt the weird fish monster thing under the water, the weird fish monster thing jumps out and starts running around Yeouido eating people.
This particular victim was oblivious to what was happening, because she was listening to classical music on her headphones. It’s a shame GIFs don’t have sound…the effect in the film was quite effective: one second there’s cacophony, the next there’s peaceful music, the next…
I think it’s also significant that during this mayhem, there are only two people who seem to have any interest in anything other than running like hell: our Gang-du, and also a blonde American man. The two of them challenge the monster, but to no avail. The American – the viewer is shown later that he’s a member of the U.S. military – gets his arm ripped off and dies later in the film.
So an American scientist told a Korean scientist who didn’t speak English well to dump toxic chemicals down the drain, which led to a mutated monster jumping out of the Han River several years later and eating people, and one of the heroes that fights the monster is an American. Tell me the ambiguity of blame wasn’t intentional.
There are other scenes later that portray American military people as uncaring toward Koreans, such as the one featuring the Korean scientist who is fluent in English. The American scientist he is translating for acts concerned about Gang-du (who is in custody, about to have several painful tests done on him) when he interviews him, then almost immediately changes his tune to hostile and indifferent, saying Gang-du is delusional, and that the “virus” has infected his brain.
This “virus” is indirectly where the English title “The Host” came from: the river monster is thought to be “the host” of an unknown virus, one that has infected everyone who came in contact with the monster. This virus is mentioned on news reports as the cause of a mysterious rash that many people have started to get.
This rash also has (or at least had at the time the movie came out) a real-life analog in Korea: a rash of unknown origin called “atopi” that affected quite a few people, mostly children. I had students who had it from time to time. Nobody really knew what caused it, but chemicals in processed food like ramyeon (which kids ate tons of, including crunched up and uncooked, which is actually not as gross as it sounds) were thought to be a possible culprit.
That’s a detail of the film that would go right past anyone who has never heard of “atopi.” But it’s another real-life sort of detail that was put in, like the formaldehyde-down-the-drain event, and also something much more easily recognizable that happens toward the end of the film: the U.S. military decides to fight the monster using something called “Agent Yellow.”
Which, yeah, if that doesn’t ring any bells, you obviously don’t know much about the Vietnam War.
Director Bong Joon-ho said that calling the film “anti-American” would be a stretch, and I would agree with him. But it does play off of tensions between American military personnel and Korean people. I don’t think Bong would deny that.
Regrettably, the DVD I watched last night was scratched, so I didn’t get to see the ending of the movie again. I only got about an hour and a half through the approximately two hours of the movie, and I don’t remember exactly how it ends.
Hyun-seo, I forgot to mention, is swallowed by the monster and taken away in the monster’s first appearance. She survives being swallowed and spat back up in the sewer, and she manages to make a call to her father Gang-du to confirm she is still alive. The majority of the film centers around her family trying to find and rescue her. Her family is thwarted by American military as well as Korean people (government and civilian; one of Nam-il’s friends tries to capture him to get reward money) in their rescue attempts, but finally they find out where she is.
But like I said, I don’t remember exactly how the movie ends.
It’s worth watching, at any rate.