Though I have trawled through the books I’ve recently read for over a half an hour now, I cannot now find the passage that sticks out in my mind where an SF critic points out that American readings of Gojira, while they tend to correctly grasp the political subtext of the film — anxieties about nuclear weaponry, loss of colonial territory after the war, the threat of American power — miss out other, subtler aspects, such as the fact that the dynamic of “survivor’s guilt” could easily account for the fascination with a tremendously destructive monster attacking one’s homeland. (Another example of something Western viewers don’t always pick up is one Thomas Schnellbächer (cited above) notes about the tense push-and-pull of retrogressive and progressive notions of nation and identity and power in the film (34-35) — evident in the way the monster Gojira arises as a result of American nuclear testing, but also arises on an island from within the former Japanese empire, only one example of many in the film).
While The Host is accessible enough for non-Korean audiences to follow — and for Korean audiences to read only in a superficial way, if they like — there is a great deal more resonance to be explored in the film. A tiny example is the fact that Nam-Joo’s archery skills — intendedly or not — actually hearken back to the fact that — yes, just like elves in D&D — Koreans were — in Chinese sources — apparently renowned for their archery skills, at least according to one book of mine — a text with tons of historic photos, titled 사진으로 보는 朝鮮時代 [조선시대] 생활과 풍속 (Yi Dynasty through Pictures) Vol. I (Seomoondang: Seoul, 1988) which presented this picture along with the discussion of Korean archery (on page 119):
… and made the claim that Korean women were renowned for being outstanding archers:
활은무기이기도 했지만 여성과도 가까운 존재였당. 그러나 적어도 이만큼 활쏘기를 즐기려면 서만충아낙으로선 어림없는 일이었다.
I (with a little help) render this as:
Although archery involves deadly weapons, it was closely associated with ladies. However, it was usually difficult for women who were not of a certain degree of means to have the opportunity to enjoy such training.
That’s an interesting resonance which adds some depth of character to Nam-Joo’s character, and which is not available to Western viewers of the film. (Or, I should add, a number of Korean viewers. When I mentioned that I’d come across this claim, some of my [Korean] students were surprised to hear about any association between women and archery in Korea, or that the Chinese had claimed Koreans to have been good archers at all, though everyone was aware that archery is a big deal in the Korean sporting world.) It would probably be going too far to claim she emblematic of Korea, but it does help bolster the sense that her family — with her included — are more than just characters, that they stand for something greater than just any old family who happened to experience the bad luck of having their kid stolen away from them by a river monster.
But I’d like to turn to the river monster first, and try to tease out what that thing is all about, before looking too closely at the Park family.
The one singular characteristic of the monster is its relationship with the concept of transformation. After all, it is istelf a mutant: the dumping of chemicals into the river — on American orders, yes, but carried out by a Korean — is the origin of its transformation. This is driven home when, after the monster’s assault, Gang-Du is eating something from a can. On the side of the can, it says, “BAI-DING” or something like that, and this is a food product that I’ve seen plenty of times, but never bought myself — though we do have a tin of it in our cupboard! (Lime says she has plans for it, though not the usual kind: although a variety of uses are possible, these snails are commonly used for anju, meaning side dishes consumed whilst drinking alcohol.) When you see him eating it, it becomes apparent that this thing — — is the normal form that mutated to become the monster we saw earlier —
I noted above that the director himself agreed about a degree of similarity between Gang-du and the monster, and this is one of them: Gang-du eats small snails, and in a strange reversal, a giant snail eats people (including his daughter). The similarties are otherwise rather numerous: he and the monster are both awkward, clumsy, and somehow not quite “right.”Gang-du seems mentally deficient, and not really responsible enough to run a confectionery stand —
— let alone father a child:
… a suspicion which is finally confirmed when Gang-du takes the wrong girl’s hand while fleeing from the monster:
and his daughter is captured by the horror:
Gang-du, of course, turns from a clown to a tragic figure when his daughter is presumed dead, and then becomes a heroic v(if still goofy) underdog when it turns out she is alive, and awaiting rescue. Still, if Gang-du were just an idiot, that would be relatively uninteresting. He isn’t, however: the identity between him and the monster actually go much deeper. We learn this when, frustrated by his siblings’ treatment of his eldest son, Gang-du’s father tells his other children a story.
Just just a story, a confession, and the story of how Gang-du became the way he is. It is a pathetic tale of neglect, both lightened and made more tragic by the fact that Gang-du’s siblings are soon sleeping instead of listening to the story of how their now-stupid elder brother was once a very clever little boy, left to fend for himself and “do seori” (let’s say, “borrow” in that sense that means never giving back) food from nearby farms. Just like the monster, Gang-du was transformed in his early life by a “toxic environment” — the broken family of hiw own childhood. And as his father said, “something broke” inside his head. The chaos we saw at the funeral:
… pays off as it becomes obvious that this family is already, irreparably, broken, even as they struggle to maintain the shreds of integrity they have and save their family’s most vulnerable member.
Now, far be it from me to push this too hard, as it’s really just a tangent, but I’ve seen a lot of broken families in the Korean short fiction I’ve read. One of the patterns I’ve seen — enough to feel like it’s some kind of literary convention — is the us of broken families to represent the division between North and South in Korea. I don’t think that’s what is going on in this story, mind you — any more than I think Yonggary — a giant dragon-like beast that rises out of the ocean — has anything to do with Japanese guilt about imperialism and conduct during the war. Rather, I’m just noting that broken families are one of those tropes that we see a lot in modern Korean literature — and film, for that matter — and that they seem to have accreted a kind of aura of significance and meaning, especially a political one.
The characters are very interestingly selected, by the way. Nam-Joo, played by Bae Doo-na, is quite decidedly not the sort of character who is usually tasked with being the heroine in a Korean film. That is to say, Nam-Joo is not a pretty woman. Not that we would say the same of Bae:
Nothing to sniff at, as I’m sure you’ll agree! Yet Bae’s character — who, albeit, goes from believing her neice is dead, to hunting the giant monsterthat had kidnapped the child — is most definitely made up to look unpretty — there’s a conscious, conspicuous effort put into it:
… and at times, one cannot help but wonder if what is being done here is some kind of hearkening back to a time before the media and fashion industries — so prominent today — had become as entrenched as they now are, and before female Korean stars were getting massive amounts of plastic surgery, dressing they way they do, and wearing enough makeup to make even a group of teenagers push the buttons of a surprisingly large number of adult men. Nam-Joo may well be not just be a refiguration of the female archers of old Korea, but also iconic of those women who somehow struggled to hold their lives together without falling back on their looks, or selling themselves as so many — enough to make the sex trade very nearly competitive with agriculture in this country — have ended up doing.
And by the way, Nam-joo is downright bad-ass, when she finally gets over her hesitation issues. She’s the family member I credit most with the death of the monster, simply because she is a stone [monster-]killer. Look at that expressionless face:
Nam-Joo’s brother, on the other hand, is camouflaged — he wears a suit at the beginning, and looks like he could pull off fitting in the corporate world of Korea much better — but he’s no real action hero, and indeed, he’s not very much of a man at the beginning of the story. Indeed, the first thing we see of him is not his face, but his hand, and in it, bottle of soju — the hard liquor that is, again, the emblematic Korean liquor:
The next thing we see is him guzzling the stuff as he approaches the photo of his supposedly dead neice:
While I have no doubt some guys do go and get hammered on soju when there’s a death in the family — just as some guys go get hammered on Wild Turkey or cheap vodka, depending on where they live — I think there’s more going on in this scene than just that, too.
As I’ve promised to explore in my (still ongoing, but backburnered) series on Gin Lane and Soju-Ro, soju is fascinating as an emblem of Korea — in this context especially so because it is also a beverage that has been completely redefined by the industrialization and modernization of the country. As Wikipedia notes (citing this article by Ines Cho):
From 1965 until 1991, in order to alleviate rice shortages, the Korean government prohibited the traditional direct distillation of soju from fermented grain. Instead, highly distilled ethanol from any source was mixed with water and flavorings to create diluted soju. Although the prohibition has now been lifted, cheap soju continues to be made this way.
Ethanol, of course, was an industrial byproduct. This is significant because the concern over rice shortages was nothing new: Cho notes periodic bans on soju-making during the Joseon Dynasty for similar reasons, but they were probably ineffective (just as the ban on using rice to make liquor was apparently ignored in the countryside in Korea from 1965-1991) and didn’t last. Notable also is the fact that soju was (effectively, through heavy taxation) banned by the Japanese colonial government — a ban that, again, did not last. Thepeople wanted their soju, and they would have it. The only change in 1965 was that soju could be had without using rice to make it: industrialization made that possible, because industrialization meant industrial byproducts, and that’s essentially what soju was (and I’m under the impression that, in many cases, despite the additives, the cheap stuff still is).
But I’ll save the finer discussions of history and booze for later posts in the series on soju and gin. For the purposes of this discussion, it’s simply important to note that soju is, and long has been, the drink favored especially by the working class (as opposed to CEOs who, as much as they may partake in soju-fests, tend to go drinking in expensive places and pay millions of won for bottles of foreign liquors like whiskey, as a function of status). Soju is, significantly, a drink that was transformed by industrialization and modernization, and to add one more startling transformation to our list in the film, the iconographic green soju bottle itself makes another startling transformation — to a weapon against the monster:
The fact that he is aided by an (obviously alcoholic) homeless man is only more reason to consider that soju, in the logic of this film, is iconographically a class marker, but what’s far more important about this tranformation of the soju bottle is that it also invokes poilitical history explicitly, visually. Nam-il was a member of the democracy movement, a protester back in the 1980s, and he speaks of his past as a sacrifice, as having given up his youth to bring Korean into the democratic era, a sacrifice he feels has not been rewarded. And in the end, his weapon fails, just as some would argue the democracy movement failed to truly transform the government.
Not that all demonstrators have lost out. Nam-il’s “friend,” a fellow ex-demonstrator who had gone corporate, gotten a job with a major telecom company, and tries to sell out Nam-il (and his sister) to the authorities for money, is a pretty strong satiric jab at the idea that the whole democracy movement was unimpeachable and well-intended, but at the same time, one cannot help but feel that Nam-il represents simultaneously the elements in the democracy movement who both (a) truly cared about democratization in Korea and (b) were used by all kinds of crooked types (like Nam-il’s friend) to catapult a few into positions of power and wealth quite comparable to their previous oppressors, the corporate and political elites who, under the dictators who came after the Korean War, ran the country with impunity.
Nam-il’s friend’s betrayal is, of course a cynically predictable, and relatively comic, moment, but it also signifies a great deal in a political sense, and it is also worth noting that this is a case of another transformation: a protester against the sysrem has become a (very eager) cog in the system.
Likewise, Nam-il’s failure to kill the monster with his last Molotov cocktail, which he drops to the ground, seems significant to me as an extension of the same political critique. The monster, then, really does resemble the establishment that, in his much younger days, he fought against, and which nobody quite managed to kill. For, after all, when democracy was ushered in, the old regime became a party, and the competition, over time, began to resemblethe party in ways that resonate powerfully with Nam-il’s friend and his decisions.
And that’s what I think needs saying about the monster: it is a transformed creature, but one surrounded in a sea (or, at least, a river) of transformations, and in a sense indeed springing from those transformations. Along with all the smaller but ubiquitous transformations mentioned above, we have a tyrannical dictatorship that has transformed into a less-tyrannical but no-less-corrupt (perhaps even more corrupt) and no-less-callous democratic government (with all of its trappings, the police and medical systems and under-the-thumb media, in tow). Our setting is in the posh area of a city that has been transformed from a third-world capital to a major metropolis, complete with a multiethnic population (featured much more prominently in those first scenes in Yeouido than I’ve ever seen in any Korean film before):
But at the same time that all this political critique is undeniably present in the film, the focus is, as so many have pointed out, on the story of a family. A broken family, with all the political resonance that seems to carry in Korean literary and cinematic culture… but a family nonetheless. Since nearly every character seems to be transformed in this film — including a few I haven’t yet discussed, but I’ll get to, I promise — we could ask ourselves: what transformation has the family itself gone through?
Well, its brokenness is nothing so spectacularly dramatic as in those (mostly less-recent) Korean stories I’m thinking of, where, during the Korean war, a husband and wife or brother and sister are separated by some strange turn of events that symbolizes the political division between North and South Korea — complete with the moving reunion of the pair at the end of the story as a poetical utopian evocation of Korean reunification. I’m fully aware that this might be a trope that ends up in works more commonly chosen for translation into English. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if this explicit political content were in fact part of the reason such works seem to win the awards that sometimes serve as the basis for selection for translation and publication. But the number of times I’ve seen the trope crop up suggests to me that the analogy between a broken family and a broken nation has become as natural to Korean readers (and film-goers) in the same way that the hackneyed metaphorical meaning of rain as “new beginnings” is obvious to literate anglophones.
Still, the broken family is not, in this case, one that can be repaired: Hyun-Seo’s mother seems to have just run off after having the baby, and never sees her daughter (or, we assume, Gang-du) again. The saying,”북녀남남” (Buk Nyeo Nam Nam — “Northern women, Southern men”) comes to mind — if Hyun-Seo’s mother is emblematic of North Korea, it is in the sense that she is pointedly absent, and utterly unwilling to reunite with Gang-du. She has abandoned the future, something we could easily argue North Korea also has done.
But there’s another way to look at this. If we also see Gang-du’s extended family, instead, as being already-transformed, as the product of a transformation that preceded the beginning of the film, we can see our way a little more clearly. And the transformation I’m talking about is the transformation of South Korea itself in the time since it was split apart from the North, a transformation that took place in the very lifetime of the characters depicted (though it was close to complete by the time Hyun-Seo would have been born).
The transformation I’m talking about is one that — significantly — is termed “The Miracle on the Han [River].” Which, as you probably know, is the river that runs through Seoul, and the river from which the monster in The Host emerges. It’s the economic and industrial modernization of Korea that happened from 1961 — the coup of Park Chung Hee — to the 1997 Asian financial crisis. In Korea, it’s called something quite similar: 한강의 기적 — “Hangangeui Kijeok” — and it essentially turned South Korea from an agrarian society into a modern, increasingly post-industrial society. That we should see a monster emerge from a river so rhetorically associated with transformation, in a film where transformations of all kinds flow thick and fast, suggests we should look at this bigger, more generation transformation for clues about how to read the movie.
(And, tangentially, while I play mental word associations with various words and names in the film, I find it interesting that the first syllable of Gang-du’s name is a homophone with the Korean word for “river”; likewise, Nam-joo and Nam-il’s names both contain the syllable Nam, which is a homophone with the Korean word for “south” — and both have been shown above to be emblematic of the South. Whether this is intentional is something I daren’t say, but it is tantalizing, and I’m sure more such things can be found. But then, one must also be skeptical of such fine-tuned readings. All I can say is that it is interesting to find such resonances even down to the characters’ names.)
The thing to notice is that the people in Gang-du’s family, had they been living a generation or (two or three) before, would likely have been peasant farmers living in a village in some random corner of the country, under the boot of Japan, or under the boot of the Joseon Dynasty’s local representative, depending on how far back you go. And I daresay that a lot of the things we see the Korean government doing in The Host — lying to its citizens and the international community, fabricating news, denying the basic human rights of citizens, ignoring their pleas for aid or even the freedom to take care of their own families, empowering thoroughly corrupt private business a staggering degree of power over the lives of citizens –like when Gang-du’s family must bribe a local businessman to get access to the riverside so they can search for Hyun-Seo:
— and enjoying themselves while their handiwork was being done by others — one thinks of the barbecue outside the trailer where Gang-du’s brain is being biopsied —
— then we can see that, whatever transformations have happened, the family is pretty much trying to stay in as close to one piece as possible.
Which brings us to the question of who the “bad guys” are. Certain commentators have repeatedly argued that, because of the opening of the film and its use of the (popularly exaggerated, and minor compared to relatively poorly-publicized incidents perpetrated by Koreans) dumping of formalyn into the sewage system by Koreans at the command of a civilian American mortuary worker. (You can read the whole rant here, if you like; it’s the one at ROKDRop that I linked it in part 1 of this post as well). Others have wholly dismissed the idea that the film (or these images) should be read as anti-American, noting that a great deal of harshness is handed out to all kinds of people — ex-democracy protesters, the Korean police, the Korean government, and so on. (Again, Michael’s previously-cited response can be read here.)
In my opinion, both of these readings are too simplistic. It’s futile to deny that many of the Americans are presented in a negative light. However, it’s also foolish to ignore than many of the Koreans in the film who occupy positions of power — that is, like the American military officers and medical experts who are, almost all, implicitly in positions of relative power in a Korean context — are presented in an even more negative light. Even more embarrassingly, a number of other Koreans are shown to stoop and fawn before both. Not just the Korean who obeys orders that the audience is encouraged to see as bad orders, at the beginning of the film, but also the doctors who make a show of being professional — they suddenly stop gossiping, switch on their equipment, and stand awkwardly at attention, reminiscent more than anything of little boys pretending to be real grown-up doctors — when a representative of the American CDC shows up in the trailer where Gang-du is being held:
And no, the token nice white dude who sacrifices his life to help save the lives of some Koreans doesn’t erase that many Americans look like bad guys in this film. Then again, Private Donald is dressed pretty much like any other [Korean] Yeouido visitor, and his relationship with his girlfriend seems, from the few moments we see of it, heartfelt. She pleads for him to not run into the monster’s vicinity, which is a hell of a step up from every [romantic] foreigner-Korean relationship I’ve ever seen in a Korean movie. (Usually, the girl is either a prostitute or a so-called “slut,” and seems sad or mentally mixed-up. Donald’s girlfriend seems pretty much like any average Korean girl of the same age, except that she seemingly (from her accent) speaks English fluently. Kudos to Director Bong for giving us what may be the first non-psycho Western/Korean couple in Korean film. May be, note. There might be an earlier case I’ve missed!)
And while I am discussing misinterpretations: it’s breathtaking how far off the mark ROKDrop is when he implies that the anti-Agent Yellow protesters are lionized for their actions. Yes, Agent Yellow is an obvious send-up of Agent Orange:
— and frankly a well-deserved one, considering the horrors that the US use of Agent Orange abroad led to. (And did you know the stuff as used in Korea in the late 60s, too? Yes, that nasty little secret’s been out for a few years now, I guess.) The histrionics about verbal attacks on America — so common among a small number of Americans here — are a distraction. Bickering about whether or not the film is anti-American is much less interesting than asking what the use of images of Americans means in this film.
While I’m at it, I’d also like to note that, in this film, it would be ridiculous to claim (as ROKDrop implies) that protesters are being praised. Not only has protest culture been scathingly criticized already in the form of the betrayal of Nam-il by a fellow ex-protestor, but most of the younger generation of anti-Agent Yellow protesters flee as soon as it comes to putting their own butts on the line: a massive crowd of protesters suddenly dwindles to a handful of souls just as Agent Yellow is released.
You would have to be outright searching for something to criticize, and would have to have left your sense of humor back at home on the base, not to find this both hilarious and scathing as a send-up of Korea’s so-called “tin pot culture” (heats up quickly, but cools off just as quickly). Bong isn’t praising protestors, he’s mocking them as viciously as he mocks almost everyone else, including Americans.
So if it’s less than useful to rant about — or to excuse — the depiction of this or that America in the film, how are we to make sense of the obvious cinematic rhetoric about American presence in Korea. Well, to me, the image I cited above is particularly relevant:
What we see here is the absolute nexus of real power in Korea as many Koreans of Gang-du’s class and background would perceive it: Americans in military uniform, and Koreans in suits. These two groups are, in their purest sense — as in this image — distilled into types, into vague, unparticularized forms, because they are not characters, in the sense that Donald is. They are emblems of a status quo that, indeed, existed in the past and still haunts Korea today, no matter how many Donalds there are, no matter how much time has passed.
You go on and get you brains drilled out, Gang-du. We’ll be out here barbecuing burgers and weiners and networking! Okay? Good.
The American characters in this film, aside from Donald, are not strictly speaking “American.” They’re rather an inextricable part of a complex web of figures — the foreign CDC man, the Korean cop, the foreign mortuary boss, the Korean mortuary worker, the crowd of suits and soldiers having a nice Sunday barbecue while Hyun-Seo starves in a monster’s lair in the sewers by the Han River — that emblematize the hermetically sealed relationships of power that comprised life for the Korean masses, powerful business owners, the Korean military, and the American military and government during the dictatorships under which the Miracle of the Han River occurred. Almost all American presence in the film is explicitly linked to Korean power — oppressive Korean power, specifically an oppressive, deceitful Korean government that fabricates a story about a virus, that doesn’t blanch at having citizens lobotomized for the sake of its lies, that in fact does everything it can to ruin the lives of Gang-du’s family for no good reason at all. These and all of the government’s other insanities all represent the two-faced nature of the governments which ruled Korea in those years: one face smiling out at the world, and the other staring impassively, blocking many people from even criticizing its very real, very important injustices, abuses, and inadequacies.
The barbecue scene, in other words, is a brief glimpse of the Old Boy’s Club of Power in South Korea, one that, however it may discomfit us, and no matter what justifications we may wish to offer, included or was linked to powerful Americans. Gang-du is not welcome there, and he does not linger, but he knows that even the transgression of fighting for his own life, and his daughter’s, is inexcusable in their eyes. (This is why he needs a hostage.)
Little wonder then, really, that the chase scene where the cop tries to stop the family from escaping the hospital went over so well with audiences:
… since there is, and has been, long-seething discontent with the arrogance, ineffectiveness, lack of compassion and respect given to citizens by the police in many parts of Korea — resentment less pronounced in the countryside and among older people, according to this survey, but resentment that, in public and online discussions has flared in certain instances to the point of a public relations disaster in which high level officials or, recently, the President, had to show up at the police station to remind people to do their goddamned jobs.
Resentment and — unsurprisingly — a strong sense of the police as linked to or part of the bureaucratic institutions of the government, rather than as upholders of the law and the peace in their local communities. This is yet another facet of the power structure that Bong is constantly attacking in the film, such that by the end, you’re left wondering whether it’s the Korean government and all of its tentacles — business, the medical system, the police — who comprise the real monster of the movie. And if you think Bong Joon-Ho has hammered it over your head already, perhaps it’s overkill for me to note that Yeouido, which the all-important Wonhyo Bridge near which the monster lives is located, is… well, I’ll let Wikipedia describe it for you:
Yeouido is a large island next to the Han River in Seoul, South Korea. It is Seoul’s main business and investment banking district. Its 8.4 square kilometers are home to some 30,988 people. The island is located in the Yeongdeungpo-gu district of Seoul, and largely corresponds to the precinct of Yeouido-dong. The island contains the National Assembly Building, where the National Assembly of South Korea meets, the huge Yoido Full Gospel Church, the 63 Building, and the headquarters of LG, KBS, and MBC, and the Korea Exchange Center.
Yeouido is, in other words, a site where power in Korea (governmental, religious, media, and corporate power alike) are concentrated. If you’re anything like me, there’s only one possible reading for the notion that a giant monster lives there, and it’s not flattering to any of the above.
And to say nothing about America, the government that after all supported the same dictatorships that ruled through the majority of the Miracle on the Han, would simply be remiss. Of course, those who see the movie as anti-American are likely to see America’s involvement in Korean history through rose-colored glasses, just as some Koreans are likely to see it through nightmare-tinted sunglasses. The truth is somewhere in between, with great dollops of both, but for society’s losers, the whole mess of it — American power, rich Koreans, military officials, cops, doctors — melds into one nasty, seething, toxic lump of oppressiveness. Toxic as the HanRiver is at the beginning of the film.
And society did have its losers. The so-called “Miracle on the Han,” of course, is primarily understood as an economic miracle. In any economic transformation, however, there are all kinds of other changes that must occur. For example, “From 1970 to 1990 the city’s population more than doubled to a panic-inducing 10 million” — a transformation that, of course, should bring to mind the gargantuan size-change in the monster, as well as its propensity to consume people, mentioned above.
In every such environment-in-transformation, there are always winners and losers. The novels (or, rather, collections of linked short stories, which they both are) that I mentioned in part 1, which I am currently reading, A Distant and Beautiful Place (원미동 사람들) by Yang Kwi-Ja and The Dwarf (난장이가 쏘아올린 작은 공) by Cho Se-hui, very vivdly sketch the world of the losers and underdogs who fared less than well in the rapid transformations that made up the Miracle on the Han. A Distant and Beautiful Place depicts one of the suburbs they were driven into (the place where I live, which as I’ve mentioned before, some of my students have called “a slum”) as real estate and development in Seoul took its course, and The Dwarf depicts (among other things) the indignities they faced while being edged out, along with some of the horrid lengths to which some had to go to keep their lives from collapsing completely. I don’t know quite how badly-off they are, but all kinds of little hints show that Gang-du’s siblings aren’t doing much better than him: how his brother marvels at his (traitorous) protester buddy’s salary, and the way Nam-joo dresses. (She works for a government office, which means stability, but not much income: this all but screams lower-class woman clawing her way up to middle class. I know people who are basically in the same position as her.)
The family must struggle to maintain its unity, though. Obviously, they don’t live together: Gang-du’s father, Hie-bong, says as much to the photo of Hyun-Seo when her uncle comes to the funeral: “Because of you, we’re all together now!” he tells her. Nam-joo presumably lives in Suwon, where she works — which is a suburb of Seoul. Nam-il, one imagines, works in Seoul. Gang-du and his father and daughter perhaps don’t live in Yeouido, as it’s too ritzy for the likes of them, but may live in one of the lower-cost housing areas nearby, or perhaps in some cheap corner of the island.
This is the postmodern family, and none of them really quite fit into the Korea in which most of the audience lives: they’re far too much the underdogs, ground down by the very same Miracle on the Han that has bouyed up so many others. And for all the glittering lights on can see on the Han river in popular photos, what I the monster seems to represent –or literally to be — is the dark side of the Miracle on the Han, that which has been denied and suppressed. It is primarily a submarine creature, concealed beneath the surface; its lair is part of the modern infrastructure of the city’s sewage system, dark, underground. In this way — being relegated to the status of beneath contempt, beneath notice until they strike out, Gang-du’s family has a great deal in common with the monster they hunt.
When Hyun-Seo’s family hunts for her, what we see is a motage of images of tunnels underground that would almost not be out of place in a fantasy dungeon crawl, and the only characters we encounter there most of the time are others of society’s losers — like the homeless kids, one of whom Hyun-Seo ends up defending against the monster:
— and government agents seemingly more bent on maintaining control of the riverfront than on catching and killing the monster itself.
(The epitome of coldness follows this scene, where Gang-du simply cannot abandon his dead father, and for his trouble, the soldiers black-bag him and haul him off. It is a heartbreaking moment, but it’s not as if citizens weren’t hauled off — bags over their heads or not — during the historical period I discussed above. They were, and then they were tortured, and sometimes imprisoned. Which makes the scene even more horrifying and heartbreaking, another dark echo of the horrifying past.)
The character that shows the greatest chance of fitting into the world — of escaping from the powerlessness and poverty that traps her family — indeed, is young Hyun-Seo, who looks like any other kid in Seoul, who is smarter than her father, more together than her uncle, more confident than her aunt, but who also just wants a new cell phone. Hyun-Seo is not merely a vulnerable child, in this film: she’s the closest thing to a character that the audience can identify with as being like themselves. She’s the only really “normal” character in the film.
And thus, since this is a movie, Hyun-Seo is bound therefore to suffer… and suffer she does.
Hyun-Seo, like so many other children in older Korean monster movies, has a strong connection with — and direct experience of — the monster before almost anyone else, certainly before any of the other major characters. What’s different is that this experience is wholly and violently negative from the very start. She is neither fascinated by the monster, nor amused by it. It arises from the waters, seizes her, and hauls her away. After a brief experience of her as a normal teenaged kid, the audience sees her almost immediately hauled off to the beast’s lair, logically to become the monster’s food, but in terms of the narrative structure, to become a hostage whom the rest of her family must rescue.
Hyun-Seo’s superficial transformation seems quite horrific: she is immediately filthy, her clothes ruined, and yet an essential sweetness and decency shines in her eyes, making her transformation all the more horrifying — indeed, as she is familiar (a regular kid her age) and also the walking dead, a meal deferred (the unfamiliar, the awful), she pretty becomes a textbook definition of unhiemliche as Freud defined it.
But I’m not interested in talking Freud: I think lit people often take him to seriously anyway. What interests me is the deeper significance of Hyun-Seo going underground, going into the monster’s lair to be consumed. When I discussed this topic with my students, I used a powerpoint to present these ideas, and the picture above (or one like it, showing Hyun-Seo in the state she is in there) was contrasted with this one, an image by the famous Korean photographer Kim Ki-chan:
(This child was particularly striking to my students because she was photographed not far from the university where I teach, not many years before they were born. The area is big buildings — including some monstrous high-rises and department stores — and it’s hard to believe it ever looked like this, let alone having looked like this just a few decades ago.
The other picture I used on the slideshow was one rather like this one, which I believe is by Michael Hurt:
Which I think ruffled some feathers — as intended. I could as easily have used the movie poster for the film adaptation of The Dwarf, which I’ll include here again (it was also included in part 1 of this post):
I want to make it clear that my point is not to say that there is some sexual subtext to the monster’s capture of Hyun-Seo, even if the kidnapping does render her a kind of surrogate mother to the little boy she rescues. (Or, maybe, surrogate elder sister, which is just as weird as it means the monster “births” her a brother out of its mouth at the same time that it births out “death” in the form of the bones of its other victims — meaning the monster is some kind of surrogate mother, which is too weird even for me to consider getting into, even with Mari Kotani’s bizarre essay on the transformation of female forms in Japanese womens’ SF — mentioned here, and yes, it’s in Robot Ghosts… too — floating around in my brain.)
Rather, I’m interested in the prospects of a girl like Hyun-Seo a few years down the road after experiencing the “dark side” of the Miracle on the Han — that is, the stuff the monster represents, the instability of housing, the grinding poverty, the severely limited access to education and decent opportunities to work. Which, as far as I can figure out, are pretty much the kinds of long-term opportunities that the little village girl a couple of photos up had available to her: marrying and becoming dependent on her husband and/or in-laws, or making money whatever way she could.
Note: the size of the sex trade in Korea, and the reasons for women going into it here, are a pretty weird topic to discuss with anglophone Koreans, especially younger people. There’s either a great deal of embarrassment, or else a great deal of naivete about the subject. But even so, it’s difficult to deny that the sex trade has, in Korean society, been an important option for women who had no other way to support themselves, especially in a society so rapidly commercializing that it sometimes seems everything is being commodified — and even sex can be used to announce the grand opening of… a corner shop:
Which, as people like James keep pointing out, is bizarre for a society that just legalized miniskirts and hot pants a couple of years ago. (Or is it? Maybe it’s precisely what you would expect from such a society. You tell me.) My discussion with James focused on the cultural ambiguity of sexualizing teenagers in Korean pop culture today. Suffice it say that the fact that Hyun-Seo is a teenager doesn’t exclude her from this icky economic underworld: indeed, among all the characters in Korean SF I’ve encountered, she most resembles in age and attire the main character in the independent film Teenage Hooker Became Killing Machine in Daehakroh, about a teenaged prostitute who is killed in a university district, resurrected as a cyborg, and goes on a killing rampage. Trust SF to dive straight into anxieties that newspapers would prefer to euphemize as things like “compensated dating.” (For an excellent discussion of wonjo gyojae/”compensated dating” see this post at Gusts of Popular Feeling, about another Korean film and its social context.)
What I’m suggesting here is not that Hyun-Seo would someday have become a prostitute, or even one of these dancing girls in front of a corner shop, but rather that countless girls in her position — essentially swallowed up whole by the dark side of the Miracle on the Han River — have in real life been confronted with the choice either to sell themselves in some form or another, or to go hungry. Either fate is a horror, and either fate has been faced by millions of women during the so-called Miracle on the Han River. Where was their miracle, pray tell? That’s the question I feel like the film is asking. Sometimes, the miracle is a monster.
What I’m talking about is the sexism and essential classism of the Miracle on the Han — its essential unfairness, in a society profoundly concerned with “fairness,” as Korean society has time and time again shown itself to be in matters pertaining to education and class. (See Michael J. Seth’s book Education Fever if you’d like a pile of examples of Korean society’s concern for fairness, and its concentration of the need for fairness on children and their futures.) Yet the fact that a great deal of the fallout is not up for public discussion. These young women, like Hyun-Seo in the monster’s lair, remain hidden, concealed, subterranean.
One might well even imagine a whole network of such lairs, in which the monster has stowed away other children and the bones of other victims. If the monster did not have such a thing, in time it would necessarily have developed it.
But Hyun-Seo is also, and we must not lose sight of this, a child. She dies in part because of the neglect of her father to save her from the beast by catching her hand at the crucial moment… a failure which is a result of his own father’s neglect, and which opens up a sort of sense of a whole legacy of neglect being passed down from ages past, and generations long forgotten. Yet there must be more to it than that, right?
Well, another element is that, very often in not just SF but even mainstream films and all kinds of literature, children represent the future. Hyun-Seo is such an interesting character because, more than anyone, she seems like a contemporary Korean. She seems like someone who could fit in, who could function well in society, who could perhaps climb up out of her bottom-class tier into comfort security, and a measure of happiness. But such potential is precarious, and the Han River is very broad, and the deep dark side is very powerful, and can tear away opportunity in a heartbeat.
And then we find that, at the end, Hyun-Seo dies. Now, it would be a mistake necessarily to read this specific ending wholly allegorically. I am not saying that Bong Joon-Ho has declared the lower class hopeless, or anything like that. Indeed, it would be a profound mistake to miss the fact mentioned by Charles in this comment that Korean audiences — or, at any rate, Korean filmmakers — seem to really go for tragic, melodramatic deaths. They’re just into that. Melodrama is a big thing here, and one should never underestimate the importance of culture on the media a society produces. Plenty of Korean movies end very, very sadly.
Although the tragedy is softened by the fact that Hyun-Seo died a hero, protecting a child who becomes the surrogate child for her father, it’s an immensely disappointing, painful moment when one realizes that, after all the struggle, despite all her brightness and promise and goodness — her essential normality — Hyun-Seo is actually, really, finally dead. Her screwed-up family weeps over her dead body as the monster struggles, and then, of course — because this is a monster movie and who else is going to do the monster in? — the survivng members of Hyun-Seo’s family each do their part to slaughter the beast before it can escape.
They failed to save Hyun-Seo, but in killing the beast, they succeed… just barely. They manage to kill the monster — this particular monster, though the ending shows continued vigilance, and the fear of more such monsters. Obviously, this is at least in part a case of leaving the door open for a sequel (in addition to the prequel due out in summer 2009), which not only from a fiscal standpoint is a very smart move by Bong.
But it also suggests that the victory against the monster is not only incomplete in that Hyun-Seo has died, but also in that the threat, the looming, hidden danger, still remains, has not dissipated, and affects many still. Gang-du, staring out over the Han River with his rifle in hand, his surrogate child asleep on the floor of his convenience stand in the depths of a winter storm, can easily be read as a potent symbol of the fact that many families today face the same instability — or even worse, in some cases — faced by those whse lives were disrupted by the dark side of the Miracle on the Han.
Actually, as the film ends, there is one more glimpse of a reversal we see. Gang-du and the homeless boy that Hyun-Seo saved sit down together to share a meal. I mentioned earlier (in part 1, I think) that almost every Korean movie I’ve seen includes one scene involving a meal. There are several in The Host: the one where Hyun-Seo’s family eats, and, thinking of her, we see her among them as they long for her and worry about how long she’s gone hungry. And there is this meal at the end, which Gang-du shares with his adopted son. But Bong Joon-Ho rightly points out that there are other “meal” scenes as well:
The first concept was born in June 2000, and in it the monster kept growing simply by eating fish. Then one day it finally tastes human flesh, and where would that come? From a poor fella committing suicide from one of the Han River bridges, obviously! So our Monster tastes the flesh, and starts thinking: “How could I ignore this delicious taste for so long! All that fish infesting the shitty waters of the Han River can’t even compare!”
But the last image in the film is a claustrophobic, ominous one. Rightly so: in Korea today, government policies — of the kind likely to hurt people like Gang-du’s family more than anyone — are being proposed at a dizzying rate. Though the recent protests (see here) have derailed many of them, the risk is far from over: like the fish that dropped from the side of the monster, there’s the constant potential for the Han River to produce more horrors as it continues to flow along its way. The threat of the dark side of the Miracle on the Han — the looming shadow beneath the waves that indeed begins the whole movie — still haunts many, even today.
UPDATE (10 Sept 2008): More on The Host here!