With the phenomenal international success of Parasite (2019), film fans have flooded in their legions to explore the previous work of the acclaimed and loveable director, Bong Joon-Ho – I myself included. Without being a household name, Director Bong has played a major role throughout the 21st Century of shaping the relationship between Asian and American cinema, staying within the shadows of stardom – until now. A dedicated film fanatic himself, he has devoted a lot of his life to studying and mastering the art form, going on to become a definitive auteur of the international film scene. In addition, he has become a key influence on the modern dissection of the homogenous Hollywood film, seeking to broaden our heavily westernised focus on cinema and move away from film as an industrial proponent of capitalism. His collaboration and creative conflict with Harvey Weinstein on Snowpiercer (2013) has become a modern legend within film discussions, it being known that Director Bong did not hesitate to stand up to his producer and deliver the vision he wanted, and not the profitable and lifeless product Weinstein was used to churning out.
Whilst I don’t intend to compare everything from Director Bong’s filmography with Parasite, it being his only film to be explosively acclaimed by the West, his third directorial feature film The Host (2006) shares many similarities. This includes (but is not limited to) the closely dependent family dynamic, the castigation of the poor, the many layers of poverty, and of course the largely anti-capitalist sentiment. With Parasite on everybody’s lips, revisiting The Host could bring in a new understanding of Korean cinema, allowing us to appreciate a range of genres, performances and themes that Western cinema could do with knowing a little something about.
For a genre defined “monster movie”, The Host is incredibly unconventional in the best kind of way. The most noticeable thing being the monster itself. Unlike the nightmarish kind of monster you see in your dreams, slowly revealing itself from the ground up or erupting into a civilian populated area, the monster is introduced almost like an ordinary animal, hanging like a bat from a bridge. It’s not at all huge either, and in what I believe to be a stroke of genius, the first reaction of the people in the film to it is not to run or scream in terror; they simply pull out their phones and laugh. Note that this film was made in the mid 2000s, before smartphones or the worldwide obsession with social media, and even then Director Bong represents a culture so bored of their existence and sidelined nation that something like this is purely exciting, even hilarious. The monster doesn’t threaten them at first, its appearance almost cute, with frog-like features, amphibious slimy skin and a mouth formed in a vagina-like shape (suspiciously not dissimilar to the design of the Demogorgon from Stranger Things – I suppose we have to get out inspiration from somewhere). Only when it shows its ability to thunder through crowds of people, snatching innocent civilians with its curved, tentacular tail and consuming them on the spot, does the feeling of complete terror emerge, and the film changes its tone from purely light and satirical to desperate and fatal.
I’ve seen reviews of people criticising The Host for not carrying the weight of terror that classic American monster movies like Godzilla and King Kong do – but to compare it to this already established westernised genre is misleading, especially considering how the genre exploits Asian culture to create each monster’s sense of “otherness”. In fact, I don’t think the “Host” (referring to the monster being the source of a deadly virus) is the monster in this film at all – there is a much larger threat that actually causes more pandemonium and damage than this intentionally unimpressive monster ever could. It is when a US military base carelessly dumps dangerous chemicals into the plumbing that feeds into the Han river that the monster is created, from which the film’s chaos ensues. In essence, the film depicts capitalism, being the dominating economic structure of the West, as the antagonistic character which, as ever, blames its downfalls on those who have been discarded by it. Privileged carelessness is a plague, like the one the US media fabricate in order to “distract” from the threat of the monster – or in uncensored terms, to racially demonise South Korea as an uncivilised hub of disease and general foreign-ness. We see this sort of alienation all the time, especially now with the coronavirus. In times of chaos, the intrinsically present xenophobia entrenched within western society (something people have denied for years) becomes fully exposed and apparent, the mask begins to slip off and reveal the genuinely horrifying ideologies that our social superstructure is built on. As in all his films, Director Bong implements a social commentary through fantastically written satire, highlighting the issue with importance, but allowing us to laugh at it with him. I feel as though American culture is a whole farce to Director Bong and he loves nothing more than to tear it apart in the subtlest of ways – and that is how he gets the last laugh.
Another thing to note is Song Kang-Ho’s unbelievable performance. So far I’ve seen him in Parasite, Snowpiercer and The Host and I cannot believe his lack of accolades – this man is a genius when it comes to range and emotion. I totally believed him as the slow, bumbling shopworker. I still believed him as the desperate father who would do anything – even take hostages – to find his daughter. Yet he’s never taken seriously by the establishment who essentially treat him as just another nutjob from the streets – unless he carries a virus that could threaten the west, in which case he’s the face on every poster in town. The lobotomy scene just broke my heart completely, you could genuinely feel his helplessness and fear in that moment, as well as a collective sense of anger that Director Bong embellishes each moment with so well. In fact, every performance is terrific, as with the cast of Parasite, demonstrating the scope of talent outside of the West that Hollywood and The Academy have never had the guts to recognise.
Looking back on The Host, as a whole it demonstrates conventional yet enthralling storytelling, thoughtful and intriguing filmmaking and an extremely dark yet satirised social commentary – all elements signature to the work of its director. Bong Joon-Ho has an expansive knowledge of his craft which he uses to curate a sociopolitical dialogue that breaks the constraints of genre and develops a wider perspective of film as an art form, and for that, I wildly respect him.