”The Host” – a film dealing with recent history of Republic of Korea
A film directed by Korean Bong Joon-ho in 2006 appears to be a mediocre horror-comedy. However, by taking closer look on metaphors and euphemisms of the film by remembering the history of the R.O.K and its sore points, the audience may find the film to be relevant reminder about the dark events and bitter, unhandled feelings of South Koreans. The plot summary is quite simple: six years after an arrogant and racially ignorant doctor of U.S. Army has dumped formaldehyde down the sewer, a deformed monster appears in May 18th (a direct reference to Gwangju Massacre in May 1980) killing people on the banks of the Han River and captures Park Hyun-seo, daughter of the protagonist Park Gang-du. After the military seals the riverbank, Gang-du with his father, sister and brother no matter how dysfunctional their relations appear to be, have to unite the family and forget about their hostilities in effort to rescue Hyun-seo.
The formaldehyde dumping was real event in early 2000, later apologized by the U.S. Army1 which inspired Bong. The movie itself is critical towards the U.S. military, after all the dictators who ruled the R.O.K between 1952 and 1987 had a full support of U.S. Government, no matter how atrocious2. Later during the film, the U.S. Army prepares to use substance named Agent Yellow, a direct reference to notorious Agent Orange, indicating the Army does not care about the local environment nor the protests of the local people in their effort to reach the desired goal at all costs. However, an American soldier off-duty tries to assists Gang-du to save Hyun-seo and later dies to his injuries and is being portrayed as an ideal martyr, indicating the (South) Korean people do not feel antagonism towards the ordinary American people, instead respect their friendly attitudes, but dislike how the Army has used the subcontinent as a playground and people as pawn since 1945. The outrageous and inconsiderate actions of the military doctor whilst his humble and friendly South Korean assistant (who first tires to protest but in Confusian fashion succumbs to the will of the higher-ranking American) are themselves a perfect allegory of actions of the U.S. Army; this could also be interpreted as equivalent of Douglas MacArthur’s plans of using Atomic Bomb during the Korean War3 (that is, an euphemism of radical actions no matter what consequences, as well as with Agent Yellow).
The main characters (the Park family) are to be analyzed to understand as metaphors of the development and history of R.O.K; the surname Park itself is one of the most popular ones, quite similar choice when choosing the name Simpson to represent within one family the most common stereotypes of American people, thus creating stereotype of South Korean people. Father of Gang-du, Hee-bong is a humble man who used to be an embittered alcoholic neglecting his son; reference to Korean culture in which children are the most valued and beloved asset, and representing the agony of the older generation who felt themselves helpless to provide their offspring with adequate care; slow-witted behavior of Gang-du is explained by Hee-bong by the fact he didn’t take good enough care of his son, thus lack of protein in diet leading to harmful consequences (which Hee-bong tries to compensate by taking care of Gang-du). Gang-du himself is friendly, humble but slow-witted; he represents the generation as well as those people who had insufficient possibilities of developing themselves (before Hee-bong started neglecting his son thus leading to inadequate diet, Gang-du was a brilliant-minded boy but who was forced to steal by the circumstances); a perfect allegory of generation of wasted opportunities. Nam-il, highly educated but embittered alcoholic is representation of “Generation 386”; born in 1960s, politically active university students in 1980s and influential on their thirties which happened to be in 1990s (the generation that elected Kim Dae-jung as president of the R.O.K, a generation that also happens to be on the mercy of global economy and international competition thus leading to burn-outs and alcoholism; the rest of the family however refuse to feel pity towards bitter and cynical Nam-il, who fails in job interviews). Nam-joo, Olympic medalist archer and sister of Gang-du, is as well symbolism of competitiveness as Nam-il although more successful (even though she receives criticism for she hesitated to launch her arrow to the target one second too late to receive gold medal, allegory of seeking perfection in Korean and other Confucian cultures and the shame of failure).
The original Korean name of the movie “Gwoemul” translates as “monster”, symbolizing the situation created by U.S.A against which the family (South Koreans) must unite to defeat it. But the English name “The Host” isn’t reference to the monster which is believed to be a host on some unknown virus, but is instead a reference to the R.O.K, which is seen as a host of a parasite represented by the U.S. Army and the tragedy related to the presence of foreign forces. The movie has also references to the Japanese colonialism; Gang-du is anatomized without even local anesthesia, a direct reference of atrocities done by infamous Unit 731 in Manchuria during the 2nd World War and bitterness of Korean people when it comes to the lack of any kind of apology by Japanese about the WW2 atrocities. Outside the container in which Gang-du is being held after the surgery (who surprisingly survives and recovers after which he escapes taking a nurse as a hostage, indicating the saturation point of ordinary people and their ripeness for resistance) both American and Korean military doctors are been seen having a Barbeque (within the quarantine area), indicating the lack of serious consideration when judging actions of U.S. Army and the relations between Korean military personnel and the oppressor (Park Cheung-hee, a dictator of the R.O.K between 1961 and 1979 was a professional collaborator military officer during the Japanese occupation and normalising the relations after the war as well as strongly supported by Americans during the Cold War4).
During the climax of the film, Nam-il is been seen throwing Molotov Cocktails to the monster, representing the political activism of “Generation 386” and their willingness to fight the injustice whilst Gang-du reaches his full rage, again a symbol of people united to fight and improve the situation. Gang-du who had dyed his hair blonde, is been seen to have abandoned the color and having his natural color appearing again, indicating the acceptance of his true identity as a Korean. And even though his child dies, he adopts orphaned little boy whose brother, the only relative has died. The movie ends Gang-du and the boy having a dinner, a strong metaphore of responsibility to literally nourish the future; people of this generation can guarantee the following ones all the good things this generation lacked. The ending also indicates hopefullnes: even though Korean people have suffered during the past decades the hope prevails and the new future will rise, the boy symbolising future (in Korean culture, children are the greatest asset) which has been properly nourished and treated with sincere love. In other words, no matter difficulties but life will carry on.
- Keith Pratt: ”Everlasting Flower”