Reading The Host in Context, Part 1

This entry is part 11 of 67 in the series SF in South Korea

Well, here I go. This is my attempt to provide a reading of the 2006 blockbuster Korean film The Host in context — that is , not only a Korean cultural and historical context, but also in the context of Korean Gwoesu (“Giant Monster”)  movies, and those films which influenced the development of the genre in South Korea.

Disclaimer — all images not cited to an photographer at copyright their respective owners. They are used in this post for educational/critical purposes, and thus their use falls under fair use. Thank goodness, because this essay would be hard to read without them!

Also: I intended to post this all as one unit, but it turned out to be too “big” for WordPress to handle. I figured that was a sign that maybe I need to post this in two parts, though — horrors — I may need to batch process the images to a smaller size — I don’t know if image sizing is involved. Anyway, Part 2 will come in a day or two. Part 1 is more exploration/analysis of tropes common to Korean monster movies, and Part 2 applies what we learn in Part 1 to the reading of The Host.


In my earlier post on The KOFA 괴수 대백과, I mentioned how monster movie fanclub members (from this cafe community) very generously gave me a copy of the book about the history of Korean Gwoesu films In that book, it is somewhere mentioned that giant monster movies generally can be traced back to King Kong, which was gratifying in a sense since I almost would have imagined them tracing the lineage of Korean monster movies back to Gojira (Godzilla).(Gojira was given more coverage in their booklet, which made sense because the influence of Gojira was almost universally felt in the monster movies I managed to see at the festival, but it was nice that they included the original King Kong as well. No mention was made of later remakes, though, as far as I remember… again, interesting. This seems to suggest a pattern I thought I’d mentioned earlier, and which my the brilliant and well-informed Charles pointed out was a part of early presentations of mainstream literature-in-translation projects in Korea, as well, in which where the history and highlights of a literary genre is recapitulated for newcomers — that is to say, arguably, for many of Korean consumers — in appendices in the back of collections of short fiction. This is a feature of both of the big original Korean anthologies I’d managed to get my hands on, and indeed, even some single-author texts — such as 듀나’s 용의 이 and the Korean edition of Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life — include biographical essays, discussions of the writer’s place in the genre, and more.)

Still, it’s worth noting that the tradition of Giant Monster stories far antedates even the earliest King Kong movie. In some of the oldest texts in any language, you can find references to enormous, terrifying, and powerful beasts. In Old English, we find it in Beowulf; in the Bible, there is the Leviathan; in Odyssey, there are Scylla and Charybdis. Though I am no great student of Eastern literature, one imagines that dragons feature prominently in the earliest of Chinese legendary tales, tales of great snakelike beings — one name for them, possibly among others, is the naga — roaming the rivers of parts of Southeast Asia and India are well known. (Er, I don’t know if the Indian naga are specifically river creatures as they are in, say, Laotian mythology, actually. Anyone?)Naga

Let us take for granted the argument that, among others, the late Thomas Disch made in The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of (and not for the first time — I seem to recall encountering a comparable but slightly more dubious claim somewhere in one of the first critical texts on SF, New Maps of Hell by Kingsley Amis) about how giant monster movies are expressions of social anxieties. If this is indeed the case, then it is utterly unsurprising that many of these creatures are water dwellers — a theme we see recurring in Korean monster movies, almost constantly — since, after all, the human dependence on water for travel and for sustenance would combine very powerfully with the marked human vulnerability to water. Forests might be scary, but you can survive immersion in most forests for at least a few hours.Water, on the other hand, is not only avery dangerous place to be, but also surrounds Korea on all three sides, and played a significant part in a number of Korea’s unfortunate encounters with the outside world, especially the most recent, the Japanese colonial occupation in the first half of the twentieth century.Of course, part of the genealogy of giant (water-) monster movies is the legends told among seafaring societies. It’s far likelier that the Japanese would be afraid of — and titillated by — tales of gigantic oceanic water-monsters than, say, the Mongols would be; likewise, the British or Norse versus, say, southern Germans.However, the giant monster-as-science-fiction probably traces back to H.G. Wells. I haven’t closely studied this, of course, and I could be wrong, but certainly in one sense, his 1904 novel The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth is an important precedent. (Feel free to read the book on your own — it is available in many places, though I recommend nabbing it from manybooks.net, where you have your pick of formats.)This novel strikes not just a conceptual but also an emotional chord which unmistakably resonates through all the great (and not-so-great) monster movies that come after it. The following passage, amply quoted from chapter three, illustrates the particulars of that conceptual and emotional resonance:

It was sheer good luck the horse came down in Hankey, and not either before or after the houses had been passed.

No one knows how the horse came down, whether it stumbled or whether the rat on the off side really got home with one of those slashing down strokes of the teeth (given with the full weight of the body); and the doctor never discovered that he himself was bitten until he was inside the brickmaker’s house, much less did he discover when the bite occurred, though bitten he was and badly—a long slash like the slash of a double tomahawk that had cut two parallel ribbons of flesh from his left shoulder.

He was standing up in his buggy at one moment, and in the next he had leapt to the ground, with his ankle, though he did not know it, badly sprained, and he was cutting furiously at a third rat that was flying directly at him. He scarcely remembers the leap he must have made over the top of the wheel as the buggy came over, so obliteratingly hot and swift did his impressions rush upon him. I think myself the horse reared up with the rat biting again at its throat, and fell sideways, and carried the whole affair over; and that the doctor sprang, as it were, instinctively. As the buggy came down, the receiver of the lamp smashed, and suddenly poured a flare of blazing oil, a thud of white flame, into the struggle.

That was the first thing the brickmaker saw.

He had heard the clatter of the doctor’s approach and—though the doctor’s memory has nothing of this—wild shouting. He had got out of bed hastily, and as he did so came the terrific smash, and up shot the glare outside the rising blind. “It was brighter than day,” he says. He stood, blind cord in hand, and stared out of the window at a nightmare transformation of the familiar road before him. The black figure of the doctor with its whirling whip danced out against the flame. The horse kicked indistinctly, half hidden by the blaze, with a rat at its throat. In the obscurity against the churchyard wall, the eyes of a second monster shone wickedly. Another—a mere dreadful blackness with red-lit eyes and flesh-coloured hands—clutched unsteadily on the wall coping to which it had leapt at the flash of the exploding lamp.

You know the keen face of a rat, those two sharp teeth, those pitiless eyes. Seen magnified to near six times its linear dimensions, and still more magnified by darkness and amazement and the leaping fancies of a fitful blaze, it must have been an ill sight for the brickmaker—still more than half asleep.

Then the doctor had grasped the opportunity, that momentary respite the flare afforded, and was out of the brickmaker’s sight below battering the door with the butt of his whip….

The brickmaker would not let him in until he had got a light.

There are those who have blamed the man for that, but until I know my own courage better, I hesitate to join their number.

The doctor yelled and hammered….

The brickmaker says he was weeping with terror when at last the door was opened.

“Bolt,” said the doctor, “bolt”—he could not say “bolt the door.” He tried to help, and was of no service. The brickmaker fastened the door, and the doctor had to sit on the chair beside the clock for a space before he could go upstairs….

“I don’t know what they are!” he repeated several times. “I don’t know what they are”—with a high note on the “are.”

The brickmaker would have got him whisky, but the doctor would not be left alone with nothing but a flickering light just then.

It was long before the brickmaker could get him to go upstairs….

And when the fire was out the giant rats came back, took the dead horse, dragged it across the churchyard into the brickfield and ate at it until it was dawn, none even then daring to disturb them….

No giant sea critters, these rats, and yet their narrative function is unmistakable. They are gigantic, marauding animals; a horrendous and destructive perversion of nature, and though created by the willful experimentation (and negligence) of human beings, and arguably are simply acting within their nature, nonetheless it remains beyond sane argument that they simply must be destroyed. But they are also enthralling in their size, shocking and spectacular — in the sense of being a spectacle. This, surely, is what attracted B-film directors to adapt the Wells novel — the same thrills and chills that other early SF films and fiction seemed to offer throughthe presentation of the fantastical.

The Food of the Gods

Then, of course, comes King Kong, whose significance — to Korean cinema, at least, if we exclude the American/Korean co-production Ape — seems relatively minimal. (And most profound in the first film, Giant Space Monster Wangmagwi, form what I gather.) Godzilla is, indeed, seems to be the grandfather of (South) Korean monster movies. Yes, sometimes the beast comes from space rather than the ocean, but the two seem to both function in a similar way. And anyway, a lot of water-beasts do turn up. (The many horrors in 비천괴수 (Flying Dragon Attack) and the beasts in both Yonggary films emerge from the ocean, and, interestingly, the monster in 괴물 (which from now on in this post, I will refer to as The Host) emerges from water… though from the Han River, not from the sea.

There are other commonalities, which I mentioned in the earlier-mentioned post, that seem to be shared among Korean monster movies. To recapitulate them:

  • A special “contact” or connection between overtly vulnerable children and the monster.
  • Presentations of both the American military and the Korean government and military as ineffectual or callous, later resolved by an over-the-top military response that takes down (or helps take down) the beast.
  • “Foreigners” circumstantially or directly connected with the appearance of the monster in Korea.
  • The monster’s having arisen from the watery depths and finally wreaking havoc in Seoul. (Though thebeast in The Host doesn’t smash any buildings at all!)
  • The monster is revealed very quickly, and gets a good amount of screen time. Which sucks when your special effects are bad, as in older Korean monster movies, but which is excellent when you have CGI on your side.

The occurrence of these tropes or elements is presented in the figure below. Darkened/checkmarked means the element is present, greyed/question-mark means I don’t know, and blank means the trope or element is absent from the film. Click on the figure to see a larger version of the chart.

fig1

We can thus make two sorts of categories for tropes in such films:

  1. “Generic” or Fundamental Tropes appear very frequently, and invite two sorts of questions: why they’re so common, and — in cases of their absence — why they are absent in a particular film. Some examples from the chart above include:
    1. Early Reveal and Lots of Screen Time for Monster
    2. Prominence of “Family Narrative”
    3. Monster Arises from Watery Depths
    4. Monster Destroys Buildings
    5. Government/Military is Ineffectual or Callous
    6. Special Contact Between Vulnerable Children and Monster
    7. Resolution or Partial Resolution via Over-The-Top Military Response
    8. Resolution or Partial Resolution via Actions of Civilians
  2. “Occasional” or Variational Tropes appear only occasionally, or only in certain periods, and their inclusion or use perhaps invites investigation as to whether they herald generic change, idiosyncratic choice on the part of the creators of the media, or other circumstances that have affected the film’s content. Examples above include:
    1. “Foreigners” Circumstantially or Causally Related to Monster’s Appearance
    2. Monster Consumes People
    3. Monster Wreaks Havoc in Seoul
    4. References to Real-World Political Figures

A couple of caveats apply. First, this is far from an exhaustive analysis. I’ll probably go whole hog on this eventually, when I’m working on an independent paper on The Host, but for now, I’m only including films I’ve seen recently, plus Wangmagwi about which I had a chance to read. Were I to go whole hog, there would be a bunch more Korean films to see, plus all the Japanese (and American) Godzilla movies, plus the early versions of King Kong and maybe (if there were evidence of it having been released in Korea) the aforementioned adaptations of H.G. Wells. But this is just a preliminary jaunt, in the interests of a kind of quick-and-dirty analysis.

Bong Joon-HoSecondly, I’m looking only at the films. At this point, I haven’t listened to the Director’s commentary — which will be a rough couple of hours for me — or the English-language director’s commentary released on the American version of the DVD. All I’m looking at is the films themselves. Whatever ideological claims we may favour in terms of the “the death of the author,” it’s silly to think that not listening to what people have to say about their own works is worthless… even if they don’t (and can’t) offer all the answers.

And thirdly, we could — arguably — exclude two of the films on the list above: Pulgasari is a North Korean film, and quite vividly tied up with different concerns than the other films in the list. Likewise, Apeseems primarily to be an American film, to the point where the most prominent Korean character may well be a Korean-American. (His accent, at least, is almost certainly that of a native speaker from the USA.) Ape also seems to reflect decidedly American concerns, though at least in that film, South Korea is not interchangeable with just any other setting. (The American and Korean government interaction is a major part of the film, and it is the only monster movie I know of, aside from the upcoming sequel to The Host, that refrerences real-life political figures. (A imaginary conversation between an American military official and South Korean dictator Park Chung Hee occurs in the film.)

Finally, yes, we could probably wrangle a little more over the trope categories I’ve decided to use, and so on. But all of that is really just a useful framework for finding the right questions to ask.

I don’t really want to analyze each of the tropes in-depth. After all, regardless of what the Host’s director, Bong Joon-Ho, says about how soon the monster appears in his film — he suggests it is unusually early, if I followed the director’s commentary right — this seems to me to be actually a rather common feature in monster movies, and especially common in (South) Korean monster movies as well. (Probably for reasons inherent the genre: part of the point of giant monster movies is SPECTACLE!, after all. But the most interesting among those tropes listed above — those that seem peculiar to Korean (or perhaps to Korean/Japanese) monster movies, and those that seem peculiar to The Host — deserve some attention.

Doctor Mutato

“Foreigners” Circumstantially or Causally Related to Monster’s Appearance

This is an important question for the reading of The Host, especially for someone such as myself, a non-Korean. I am resistant to both of the opinions I’ve seen thus far — that is, that as ROKDrop put it in his post titled, “The Host is Crap.” [Because, of course, he argues, it is these scenes are “anti-American” anti-US — his reading of the film, though, seems as if he energetically strained to find anti-Americanism everywhere he could.]

Nor can I dismiss as insignificant the very obvious anxiety about American power in Korea — and its connections with the upper echelons of Korean power — the way Michael seems to do in his responding post, The Host, Anti-American? Nawwww…”

The answer is that a sensible reading of the film would balance the elephant in the room with the fact that the elephant is dwarfed by the GIANT MONSTER ATTACKING THE CITY!!!! That is to say, whatever is happening in The Host, there are very interesting anxieties about American power, but the movie is by no means simply or straight-forwardly anti-American.

What is worth noting is that, in fact, this is almost completely new to Korean monster movies. The only other film I know of in which foreigners have any presence at all is the American co-production, Ape, and that was a foregone conclusion since, well, they’re American actors in Korea. Even they do not, however, seem to be the cause of the monster’s appearance in the country, though they do struggle against it to some degree, and the American military’s response is almost (but not quite) as callous and damagingas that of the Korean government’s response.

Further discussion of this theme will follow in the final section of this post.

Formalyn

Prominence of “Family Narrative”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember much in the way of a family narrative in King Kong. There is a family narrative in Jaws, but the family narrative actually seems more deeply subsumed within a community narrative — an atmosphere of panic. But in what is probably the film most prominently influential on Korean monster movies — the Japanese 1954 production of Gojira (Godzilla), a family narrative of a kind does feature prominently: the expedition to Odo Island includes a paleontologist, his daughter, and her lover — her secret lover, because she’s engaged to another.

Many have commented that The Host is as much (or more) a family drama than a giant monster movie. After all, the point-of-view characters are all members of the same family, and they are the ones who struggle against both the government and the monster, and finally defeat it.

Host Meal

This is not, strictly speaking, unusual in relation to the other Korean monster movies I’ve seen or read about. Indeed, every Korean-made monster movie I’ve seen (and from what I’ve read, Giant Space Monster Wangmagwi also) features a family narrative — and even the broken family of The Host is anticipated, not just in Gojira — why does the mother not play a role in the expedition? — but also in several other films. Pulgasari told the story of a local elder and two kids who seem related to him (maybe in this case, ajeoshi really does mean “uncle”?) but they live without apparent parents. In 비천 괴수 (Flying Dragon Attacks) the focal characters are, in fact, a father who is some kind of peleontologist specialized in crytozoology — as well as a single father whose home in invaded by a female reporter posing as a nanny (and who, of course, becomes a potential love interest by the end). The original version of Yonggary: The Creature from the Depths improbably places the whole family up in the helicopter that is dropping sedatives upon the head of the dragon (after the little boy of the family discovers the beast’s weakness, or so it seemed from the horribly edited version I saw!), and indeed, even the husband’s boss at the Korean space center is also his wife’s father!

In the Chopper

Yonggary Family Shots

According to Tom Giammarco’s review of Giant Space Monster Wangmawi, the alien invasion interrupts a scheduled wedding, and indeed, the monster kidnaps the bride, carrying her about King Kong-like while smashing Seoul to bits. Even Ape — American co-production though it is — focuses more than one might expect on the plot of a growing romance between an American film actress and an American expat reporter, and his repeated marriage proposals to her, and presents Seoul figuratively — before the monster attack — through the idyllic and cheesy joy of happy family life on the part of a Korean military man who becomes a major character.

The fact that The Host focuses so explicitly on the narrative of a family — and indeed a family who is personally struggling against the monster — is therefore nothing new, and though it is a more recent innovation dating, seemingly, to the 1980s, neither is the brokenness of the family upon which it focuses.

Host Water

Monster Arises from Watery Depths

A while back, I mentioned the book Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams as a great (academic) source for all kinds of informaiton on Japanese SF. In that anthology of essays, there is an excellent piece by Thomas Schnellbächer titled “Has the Empire Sunk Yet? The Pacific in Japanese Science Fiction.” The essay essentially argues that in early Japanese SF — as in other Japanese literature — the Pacific Ocean was somehow crucial to Japanese national identity, that earlier tropes of ocean and (glorified, colonialist) identity ended up being problematized and at the same time retooled for a less self-aggrandizing, more anxious postwar zeitgeist.

I must leave aside many of the wonderful points he makes about films like Kaitei gunkan (The seabed warship), and books like Kobo Abe’s Inter-Ice Age 4 and Sakyo Komatsu’s Japan Sinks (not long ago remade into another film) — though the essay is wonderful, convinced me that I ought to read the two novels mentioned, and I recommend it for a fascinating look at the retooling of SF tropes along political and social lines.

Japan Sinks poster

But I will point out that it is tantalizing, this notion that the Pacific Ocean was somehow a powerful symbol of Japanese national identity, and that, in 1954 — less than a deacde after the end of World War II, and while war having had just recently concluded among involving Japanese former subjects aided by two superpower — one of whom Japan had defeated in a past war, the other of whom Japan had just been defeated by. And in 1954, Gojira rose from the waters and attacked Japan.

Excluding Pulgasari — which is North Korean (much less oceanfront property up there!) and based on a traditional Korean mythic beast — and Ape — which, again, is American and explicitly a riff on King Kong (though the Ape does reach Korean from a freighter off the coast) — nearly every Korean monster movie features a creature that arose from the ocean. Giant Space Monster Wangmagwi is an exception, though it’s worth noting that, as Schnellbächer points out, outer space is really in many ways a substitution for the ocean. (Thus all the naval terminology in spacefaring SF, right?)

Gojira!

Perhaps it is ironic that the sea spawned monsters for Korea — the ex-colony — just as it did for Japan — the ex-colonizer — but this makes a kind of sense. I don’t imagine there is much of a grand tradition of seafarer-narrative literature in Korea, mind you, but in any case, when the trope arrived in Korea, apparently via Japanese film, it makes sense that it would resonate. After all, Korea is a peninsula — one side short of an island — and its relatively recent experience of colonial rule at the time was facilitated by oceanic connections between Korea and Japan.

The special genius of The Host is that its enormous water monster emerges not from the ocean, but from the Han River. This is not only a departure from tradition, but also a powerful return to the inner logic of that same tradition, as I’ll explain later. A hint: it has to do with the links between bodies of water and national(ist) identity.

Into the Water

hanriver.jpg

Monster Attacks Seoul/Destroys Buildings

Most of the monsters that we encounter in Korean film attack Seoul — for the same reason alien ships hover over Washington, and not Idaho — and most monsters in Korean films destroy buildings, too. Scale models. Tons of them. Constantly. This happened in the first Korean monster movie, and it just kept on happening. Heck, Yonggary couldn’t even wait for the movie to start — he started destroying Seoul on the poster.

Yonggary Korean poster

Pulgasari is an exception for obvious reasons — it’s historical fantasy — so the monster destroys some older palatial-looking buildings. The more interesting exception here is 비천 괴수 (Flying Dragon Attacks), in which everything happens at a seaside town, and though I had a vague impression it was on the southern coast of the peninsula, it wasn’t clear to me exactly where except that it’s not around Seoul, and the “dragons” attack not just the daughter in the family, but also what looks like the local power plant and factory.

wangmagwi & buildingsSmashing buildings can be explained easily — again, the necessity of Spectacle! — and Seoul makes sense because the psychogeography of Korea is focused completely on Seoul, and has been for a very long time. It also probably makes sense for a number of other reasons: the vulnerability of Seoul to Northern attack (demonstrated manifestly during the Korean War), the relative stresses and anxieties inherent in the city, its emblematic status as the epicenter of industrialized modernity and social, economic, and political power.

Yet, interestingly, the monster in The Host is not a massive, powerful giant who smashes buildings. It does manage to take out a truck and a trailer — and arguably the trailer is the lower-class equivalent of a “big building” — but it is, compared to other Korean Gwoesu, quite modest in size, and its destructiveness is focused on people, not buildings. However, there is a way in which the monster in The Host and the psychogeographic focus on Seoul connect very neatly.

That’s because there one more reason Seoul would attract monsters, according to the logic of monster movies, which is that like attracts like. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Seoul was very much like one of the giant monsters in these films: it grew up from something more modest into an enormous, relatively brutal, very powerful living thing that survived and grew from a constant “consumption” — chewing up and, sometimes, spitting out — of human beings. The previous sentence could very easily be a description of the monster in The Host, too, couldn’t it?

The Host 1

(Korean literature apparently is full of stories of people being chewed up and spit out by Seoul: two of the books I’ve been most impressed by — in their English translations — were A Distant and Beautiful Place (원미동 사람들) by Yang Kwi-Ja and The Dwarf (난장이가 쏘아올린 작은 공) by Cho Se-hui. I cannot vouch for the film version of the latter, though: not only is it horribly titled in English — Flew One Little Dad ?!?!?! — but it looks, er, like the focus is , well… shall we hazard a guess that it ended up as a seamy exploration of a single subplot involving..well, you get the picture, right?

FLEW ONE LITTLE DAD poster

However, from what I’ve read of each, both books are well worth reading!)

Indeed, considering the profound amount of anxiety with which the prospect not only of moving to Seoul, but of “making it” there, presented people, there is probably some level on which the giant monster in a Korean giant monster movie is, indeed, the dark shadow-twin of the city of Seoul — its hidden, repressed inversion, we could call it, or in the language of the soap opera and Sunday serial of old, the city’s evil twin holding forth all about the capital that we know, but do not wish to talk about.

Government/Military is Ineffectual or Callous

This was one of the factors that stuck out most for Western viewers of The Host. I think Bong Joon-Ho is exaggerating slightly when he says what he says in this interview, quoted below:

Cineaste: Does that mean that the Korean public is so used to this dysfunction that The Host reflects the audience’s own pervasively cynical view of society?

Bong: The funny thing is that Korean audiences don’t receive it cynically or seriously but as comedy. Bribery and corruption are both very familiar but also very funny. Audiences don’t feel anger or grief. They accept this as a realistic picture of life. Koreans don’t react defensively, witnessing corruption for them is as natural as breathing.

Koreans I know did tend to take the corruption in the film in stride — they were not surprised that it was presented, and did see it, to some degree as comedy, or just as realistic. But Koreans are growing increasingly less tolerant of corruption and institutional dysfunction, or so it seems from events like these and those discussed in this series. No, not all the way to actually demanding corruption is punished, but I don’t think laughs were all that people got out of the film. People I’ve discussed it with found it quite critical of the Korean political establishment and Korean society in general.

Put Your Hands Up!

In any case, the presentation of the government as ineffectual or callous is, again, not new to The Host.

It is also not universal — in films like Yonggary and 비천 괴수 (Flying Dragon Attacks), indeed, there seems to be a strenuous effort to highlight the ability of the military to take down the bad monster. Unsurprisingly, these are Park-era films, and perhaps directors hoped to assuage fear of Northern invasion whilst delivering thrills and chills and Spectacle!

But in other films, the government and military seemed, essentially, powerless to stop the beast. In what seemed like the most realistic of all plotlines, Ape, the American military dimisses claims of a giant ape rampaging in the countryside as a publicity stunt for an American film being shot in Korea, and when the Americans catch on that it’s not a sham but a real monster attack, the Park government demands they take it alive, even if it means the monster will crush village after village in the countryside. Only when the beast approaches Seoul does the American military convince Park that the giant ape needs killin’, and by then, they begin to realize that’s easier said than done.

Which, by the way, is an interesting point to raise: most of the monster movies presented the government in a very faceless way, through functionaries and the like. Ape does something quite unusual in referencing Park. Then again, he had been the dictator of Korea for almost a decade and a half. But it’s interesting that rumor has it the current President of South Korea, Lee Myung Bak, will be referenced in the prequel to The Host, due out next summer, and set in the area of the Cheonggyechon stream revivification project that occurred during Lee’s tenure as mayor. Cheonggyecheon, of course, is the site where many of the protests of this summer occurred, and the project itself was, at the time, a major controversy in Seoul, and one that for some looked like a case of “the little people” being run out by rich fatcat “redevelopment” — a view that subsided, but is likely to be revisited now that Lee’s a stupendously unpopular President of the country, and still perceived by many as a rich fatcat. (For those not in Korea, Antti Leppanen discussed the situation at the time here and here back in 2004.)

APE Military images

That said, there’s also a simple problem involved in the genre itself: if the monster is huge, and massively destructive, then there is little incentive on the part of the establishment to let it rampage for too long. There are various workarounds for this problem. 비천 괴수 (Flying Dragon Attacks) has an effective military response, but also a ridiculous number of monsters thrown at it, so that dealing with the mess still takes a good long time, affording the audience plenty of goofy giant-monster action. Meanwhile, in Yonggary, the beast it dealt with using knock-out powder, but unfortunately, the stuff wears off. These workarounds are the sort that allow one to present a competent military, but they’re not the only sort. In Giant Space Monster Wangmagwi, the air force is rendered helpless due to compassion: they can’t very well carpet-bomb the area where the monster is, since it’s Seoul. In Ape, the strategy is a mix of incredulity, callousness (especially towards anyone living outside of Seoul), and finally incompetence that keeps out monster running about.In Pulgasari, of course, the story must unfold along ideological lines, but nonetheless, its solution — that the corrupt landowners are incapable of stopping the beast because the beast grows constantly more powerful and consumptive with each consumption, and because commoners are simply unwilling to accept this status quo — presents another solution to the problem of how to keep your giant monster rampaging.

Pulgasari and His Army

The Host, though, seems unique in terms of the monster it deploys: no skyscraper-dwarfing, no lasers from its eyes, and no long rampages smashing the towers of Seoul to bits. This monster actually spends a certain amount of time hiding out in its lair, and when it emerges, it’s as goofy and klutzy as it is terrifying. It’s a much more modest and even naturalistic monster than ever has been seen in Korean monster films. And to echo Bong Joon-Ho’s comments in the same interview linked above, it is also a sort of mirror-figure of Gang-du, the goofy and klutzy male protagonist. In other words, this might just be Korea’s first working-class monster movie, with a working-class scaled monster to boot — and it’s beaten mostly by a working-class family, aided crucially by a drunken homeless bum.  (Which, if it doesn’t set off alarm bells for you, should!)

The filmmaker for The Host, therefore, had to resolve the problem of what challenges the family in their task. Realistically, the monster’s not anywhere near as hard to kill as the monsters in a lot of these other movies. It can’t shoot lasers, it cannot swat helicopters out of the sky, it can’t smash buildings down onto its assailants. It can flee, but it can also be hunted, and sooner or later, a nice sloshing dump of napalm into its lair would have taken it out. Therefore, Bong Joon-ho did what nobody else seems to have done in a Korean monster movie, but which, in the end, seems brilliantly obvious: he made the government (and by extension the military, including but not exclusively, the American military) the bad guys, in a sense another “monster” that the family must fight to survive and save their missing child.

The Damned Cop

Special Contact Between Vulnerable Children and Monster

This is one of the most puzzling aspects of the Korean monster movie genre: the fact that children seem to have some special relationship with the monste, and that their vulnerability —  often dramatized by a descent into a death-like state, or the child’s disappearance — is highlighted during the course of the film.

Hyun Seo — Dead?

The only film I have seen so far from the genre that did not feature this was Ape, which, again, breaks a lot of the rules, but is an American co-production, supposedly scripted by Americans (though there are moments that make me wonder), definitely helmed by Americans, and so on. Meanwhile, children do not seem to feature anywhere near so prominently in films like King Kong and Jaws.

But in every Korean monster movie aside from Ape, children have a special connection of some sort with the monster. In Pulgasari, the main characters are children who bring the monster to life. In Giant Space Monster Wangmagwi, 비천 괴수 (Flying Dragon Attacks), and Yonggary, children seem almost fearless at points, and have (or, in the case of Yonggary, almost have) direct contact with the monster. 비천 괴수 (Flying Dragon Attacks) includes perhaps the most bizarre narrative turn, as the young girl who is injured by the monster (and goes into a kind of a coma) dreams of a very silly-looking monster — toy-like, indeed, would better desribed it’s appearance — fending off fighter jets; the girl giggles and cheers for the monster as if it were the hero of the film, and then begins crying when it is shot down.

Little Girl With Daddy

비천 괴수 (Flying Dragon Attacks) is only the most extreme example of a trend that seems to have through nearly all of the earlier Korean monster movies: the fact that when the monster showed up, the kids in the central family of the film were outright excited, tendedto run off to look at the monster on their own, and sometimes even had — damaging — contact with the monster, a twist of events that soberingly drove home their vulnerability.

I have to confess: I’m not exactly sure why this element exists in Korean monster movies. I could theorize a few things. Such as:

  • Perhaps children symbolize the future. If the monster is a reflection of the kinds of social changes mentioned above — if the monster is Seoul, and the future is Seoul — perhaps the child represents the future and its continuity with the present and past. Not for nothing, monsters in older films are often seen smashing older structures apart, especially distinctively Korean structures.
  • Perhaps the focus on children-at-risk is a product of a shift in the internal logic of the monster. In Giant Space Monster Wangmagwi, there is an overt and undeniable sexual undertone, as the monster not only interrupts a wedding day but also steals away the bride and, again according to the review mentioned above, leers at the bride’s bosom!This would suggest that, at least in this film, Koreans did not suffer from what Sharalyn Orbaugh, in her essay “Sex and the Single Cyborg” (collected in the aforementioned Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams), calls “The Frankenstein Syndrome” — that is, the supposed “tendency of developing countries, those defined [in narratives like King Kong] as  ‘monstrous’ and ‘raw’ by the already developed nations, to see themselves in those same terms” (pg. 174).However, in subsequent Korean monster movies, this sexual subtext would make much less sense: a gorilla or a spaceman could fall in love with a human woman, but a carnivorous dragon? A chicken-headed flying horror? Since the original subtext of King Kong — the sexual vulnerability of a white woman to a big, wild black [ape] set loose in New York City — didn’t translate well in a Korean context, at least not until the 70s when films could actually depict (or imply) white men paying for sex with Korean women (as in Woman Detective Mary, which I reviewed here), it makes sense that directors would choose the next most “vulnerable”characters available: children. (And, in more recent films, especially female children, or very young male children.)
  • Perhaps there is some underlying identification between the monsters and North Korean Communist ideology; a much older Korean man I knew described how, when he was a young child, a North Korean passed near by his village and, encountering children, gave them candy and taught them ideological North Korean songs. Though nobody would have used the notion of memetic susceptibility, Communist thought in South Korea seems to have been regarded (and responded to militarily, in some cases) as if it were a contagion to be burnt out. Maybe children were seen as more vulnerable to this kind of influence, and there’s a whole different political psychodrama underlying Korean monster movies?
  • Perhaps it is a function of the idea that SF is kid-stuff; that, indeed, the audience would include any number of kids, and would need to provide them with characters with whom they could identify. Kids getting excited about the monster, running out to confront it, finding things out about it, would be perfect stuff to keep children in the audience entertained.

Whatever the reason, kids seem almost always to have been especially vulnerable to, especially attracted to, and especially connected to the giant monsters in Korean movies  this genre of Korean films, a tradition which is partially carried on by The Host: while none of the children are particularly attracted to the monster, two children wander fearlessly (foolishly, it turns out) in the monster’s hunting grounds by night, and it is — improbably — only two children who survive the trip to the monster’s lair, with their harrowing time in that underground place being probably the creepiest element in the film.

Hyun Seo In the Monster’s Lair

Continue on to Part 2…

Series Navigation<< 2008 SF&F Festival (Seoul)?Reading <i>The Host</i> in Context, Part 2: How I Read <em>The Host</em> >>

2 thoughts on “Reading The Host in Context, Part 1

  1. Waiting on tenterhooks for part 2…

    On the children thing…

    a) well, I wonder if this has similar underpinnings to the way children either misbehave or are fascinated by (usually against adult recommendations) supernatural beings which subsequently carry them away by way of punishment in European and First Nations folktales. That there’s a scare there intended to mean “stay with what is expected and normal, listen to your parents, don’t get fascinated by the alien”

    b) And how many of the kids are little kids, also? How many of them are adolescents? Because adolescence is of course a liminal state and the abduction and return ca signify all sorts of stuff, as with the abducted girl in The Host, who also ends up mothering a younger child…although I’m sure you’re going to explore that in part 2.

    c) Also to what extent can children stand in for adults’ own unacceptable fascination with the strange and horrific, the children’s experiences perhaps stand in for half-remembered trauma.

    c2) To a small child, can’t adults be big noisy monsters quite capable of destroying all sorts of things? Children can express fear and wonder more than adults, because they aren’t expected to be doing all the problem-solving and putting on a brave front.

    Of course none of this is culturally specific. But based on what you’ve said so far it comes to mind…

  2. Val,

    I hadn’t thought about (a) — the scare kids into obeying parents factor. I have heard similar tales in Korea, involving tigers and persimmons.

    I do go into lots of the rest, though in more and sometimes in less explicit detail. I’ll be editing my comments on the film in the next day or two, after my review of the SF&F Festival goes up…

    I will say for that from what I’ve seen, that the kids in older Korean giant monster films were usually pre-teen, that is, definitely children. I do think it’s significant in several different that Hyun-Seo is a teenager, for several reasons — some of which you’ve hit upon here. I’ll get into more in Part 2, though!

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