Movie Discussion: Bong Joon-ho’s The Host [Gwoemul] (2006)

  • Monthly Theme: Giant MonstersGwoemul Poster 09_001
  • The Film: The Host
  • Country of origin: South Korea
  • South Korean title: Gwoemul
  • Date of South Korean release: July 27, 2006
  • Date of U.S. release: March 9, 2007
  • Studio: Showbox Entertainment, et al.
  • Distributer: Magnolia Pictures
  • Domestic Gross: $2.2 million
  • Budget: ?
  • Director: Bong Joon-ho
  • Producers: Choi Yong-bae, et al.
  • Screenwriters: Baek Chul-hyun, Bong Joon-ho & Ha Won-jun
  • Adaptation? No.
  • Cinematographer: Kim Hyung-ku
  • Make-Up/FX: Lee Hee-eun, et al.
  • Music: Lee Byung-woo
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Remakes? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Korean genre star Song Kang-ho (Thirst (2009), Memories of Murder, etc.).
  • Other notables?: No.
  • Awards?: 3 awards at the 2006 Asia-Pacific Film Festival. 4 awards at the 2007 Asian Film Festival. 2 awards at the 2007 Baek Sang Art Awards. 4 awards at the 2006 Blue Dragon Awards. Best Director at the 2007 Fantasporto. 2 awards at the 2007 Grand Bell Awards. Best Feature at the 2006 Hawaii International Film Festival. 2 awards at the 2006 Sitges-Catalonian International Film Festival.
  • Tagline: “Monsters are real.”
  • The Lowdown: The Host was a blockbuster success in South Korea, earning the top spot as the highest-grossing Korean film of all time. It was also rapturously received internationally, winning the highest praise from Cahiers du cinéma, Manohla Dargis, Quentin Tarantino, et al. The movie begins with an American military pathologist ordering a reluctant Korean assistant to dump hundreds of bottles of chemicals down a drain that funnels into the Han River. Years later, a gigantic amphibious mutant monster rampages along the river bank, killing dozens of people and making off a young girl, Hyun-seo. The girl’s family – her father Gang-du, her grandfather, and her aunt and uncle – are devastated, believing her dead. They are all then swept up in a military quarantine of the area, as the government believes the creature to be the host to a deadly virus that may have infected all of the survivors. But then Gang-du receives a phone call from Hyun-seo, who is calling him on an abandoned cell phone in the monster’s lair somewhere in the city sewers. Now, Gang-du and his family must break out of the government quarantine and hunt down the monster in order to rescue the missing girl – but will Hyun-seo be able to stay alive long enough to be rescued?

If you haven’t seen The Host our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Sean: First off, what do you think of the ‘giant monster’ as a horror movie baddie? I only ask because you have said that fantastical creatures are often not scary, while “real” things are. Like for you, Mick from Wolf Creek is scary, but the werewolves in Dog Soldiers are not.

Kristine: I thought the monster was amazing-looking and totally sympathetic, but not scary. I thought it was thrilling but not scary.

Sean: Let me ask you this: are you scared of the idea of a giant monster coming to get you?

Kristine: No. I am scared at the children being scared, but not of the monster.

Sean: I used to have Godzilla nightmares as a kid, of a huge monster in the distance, coming for me.

Kristine: My fears are always more: I am Cassandra and everyone thinks I am crazy and so they lock me up forever and I get lobotomized and sexually abused…

Sean: I think one of the most impressive things The Host pulls off is, as you said, making the monster sympathetic.

Kristine: I love her.

Sean: I was surprised by how upset I was when they killed it at the end.

Manic Pixie Sewer Explorer

Kristine: Can we address the female/mother monster thing?

Sean: Yes. Like that the kidnapped girl’s mother is absent from the family, which is made up mostly of men and one semi-masculinized woman, who has inconsistent aim with a bow and arrow.

Kristine: Well. Yes.

Sean: And the dad pulling the children out of the monster’s throat at the end was a total birth scene. Very “bathtub scene’ from Poltergeist, with the mom and Carol Anne covered in ghost afterbirth.

Kristine: Why are all the female monsters the most ferocious and riveting, but also the most sympathetic?

Sean: It’s weird how much the “monstrous feminine” has a hold on our collective imagination, from Grendel’s mother in Beowulf all the way to Carrie White’s crazy fanatical mother in Carrie to this….

Kristine: Also, her death was a horrible mouth rape, don’t you think?

Sean: The monster’s death?

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: Yeah. It was very, “I am penetrating you….”

Kristine: And she came into being through the misdeeds of men, not through her own desires.

Sean: I just have to comment now on how the opening rampage sequence in the movie is like, one of the best movie scenes ever. The whole thing is amazing.

Kristine: Her emergence and the initial running amok beside the river is great, absolutely.

Sean: The way the camera follows the dad and the monster comes in and out of the frame… Then the monster running into that trailer full of people…

Kristine: What is the significance of the American in that scene?

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Sean: I think the American is there so that the ”traditional” hero in a monster movie – the white, American man – can get dispatched early, leaving room for Song Kang-ho to inhabit that role. So the Korean hero can take over the movie. Because the dad and the American are the only two people being proactive and attacking the monster, remember?

Kristine: I found it interesting that Song Kang-ho has a similar character arc in this movie as he did in Thirst. Like, his character starts off as a rube and ends up playing the hero.

Sean: But the performances are so different right? I think he’s an amazing actor. Also wasn’t his hero status in Thirst always being undercut? I mean, his “heroic” ending in Thirst was also misogynistic and self-annihilating. His character in The Host is truly redeemed by the events in the movie, which I didn’t think happened in Thirst.

Kristine: You know another scene I loved?

Sean: Tell me.

Kristine: When the grampa realizes he has no ammo, and he just shrugs and resigns and waves his family away.

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: It was great and felt true.

Sean: That was so sad. I love the family.

Kristine: Not like super stoic, but human and clumsy and real… I read a lot of working class resignation in that moment, but also it told us so much about the family, that even in his final moments his thoughts are on his children’s safety. He was a loving patriarch, which is nice. It seems like patriarchal figures in horror movies are either abusive or perverse (like in Daybreakers, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead or Session 9) or are simply absent (The Exorcist or Let the Right One In) or are ciphers (like in The Others or Hellraiser) or are just total douchebags (like in The Mist and The Orphanage). But we’ve actually watched a few that feature “loving dad” figures that worked really well (Brendan Gleeson in 28 Days Later, Craig T. Nelson in Poltergeist, Harvey Keitel in From Dusk Till Dawn and the Finnish lumberjack sexpot in Rare Exports) and this movie fits in with those.

The look on her face says, “Help, there’s an angry vagina running straight for me.”

Sean: Yes, and actually the connection between all the family members here is so well drawn and so well acted. They feel like a family, which is often not the case in movies, like you said: Juliette Lewis, Asian Blood Slug and Harvey Keitel were not a believable family in From Dusk Till Dawn. Poltergeist also had a wonderfully drawn, believable family in it, but The Host is the best of the them all, I think.

Kristine: You know what their family dynamic reminded me of? Working class Korean Tenenbaums.

Sean: Sort of.

Kristine: Total Wes Anderson, right?

Sean: But not as twee at all…

Kristine: Um…. Archery????  Especially in the mass crying hysteria scene… and the archeress coming through at the end. That is Wes.

Sean: Aren’t Wes Anderson characters too WASPy and repressed to ever display their emotions? That mass crying scene is so fucking over the top. I love it.

Kristine: Me too.

Sean: This movie is like a melodrama, in how it plays out, and the structure of it. I really love that, and it’s a feature of most of the Korean cinema I’ve watched. Like A Tale of Two Sisters is just gonzo, over the top melodrama and I adore it. Even Thirst, with the weird mom-son-daughter-in-law triangle was pretty “big” in its emotional beats.

Kristine: Yeah. So, is The Host anti-American? If so, I say… I can’t blame them.

Sean: Remember that the person responsible for all the toxic waste going into the river is American. I wish I knew more about contemporary Korean politics, because all that stuff at the end felt politically charged: the crowd scenes, the government spraying the crowds down, the riot police…

Kristine: Yes, but don’t you think that is all universal iconography?

They’ve just been told Angelina Jolie was fired from the role of “river monster.”

Sean: I guess.

Kristine: It is.

Sean: Sure… So when you were rewatching the clips to prepare for this discussion, did you find that your thoughts about the movie had changed since we originally watched it?  Because when we originally watched this you were very “meh” about the movie.

Kristine: I think it seems like a really good monster movie. I love the creature and the cast is sympathetic. I have tried to pinpoint my “meh” feelings (because you are correct, that was my reaction) and I can’t really explain why I felt that way. Except maybe the smorgasbord of genres threw me for a loop and I couldn’t get properly engaged.

Sean: I think the final scene of the dad and the little boy eating dinner and turning off the news is incredibly sweet and that little boy is adorable. But part of me is so angry at how easily the movie replaces the daughter with a son, and it feels sexist and wrong. Like, the whole sacrificial girl thing is tired…

Kristine: Huh, I didn’t feel that. I felt like losing the daughter made him realize how precious all life is, or something. I actually thought the daughter turning mama to protect little boy against the monster felt true.

Sean: If all life is precious then he shouldn’t be stabbing his splintered pole into monster gullets, I’d say. Also, remember how he thinks he’s holding his daughter’s hand at the beginning but it is a stranger? That was a great touch.

Kristine: I loved that too. Again, the whole extended monster rampage scene is really, really well done.

Sean: All the stuff with the kids in the monster’s lair I really loved. The monster vomiting bones and just being disgusting was awesome.

Kristine: I loved it, too. That was the daughter’s “We are so fucked!” moment, but she fights anyway.

Sean: Yeah, she is brave and strong.

The newest ride at Tokyo Disney, the Tentacle.

Kristine: I don’t see her as sacrificial, somehow. I see her as doing what she needed to do. I was ok with her choices.

Sean: Hmmmm. I have some issues with it. But I still loved the movie, and my issues might just stem from how effective the film is at making me care about her, and about the family. I adore the movie, don’t get me wrong. This is like the one time that some movie hyped as “Quentin Tarantino’s favorite blah blah” actually worked for me. Usually all the foreign or obscure movies his name gets attached to just don’t do it for me. I am so over him being a brand name for things, and making lists with “Nice Try” categories, and just generally being America’s Go-To Cinephile.

Kristine: Quentin can go eat a Big Kahuna burger and think about what he’s done. So, is this movie “about Korea,” or is that reading too much into it?

Sean: I think it’s definitely about nationalism and about the hand of a quasi-colonial power sort of subverting and unbalancing the ecosystem there and unleashing something.

Kristine: Occupation of foreign countries is not acceptable.

Sean: But beyond that, I’m not sure if there’s a bunch of political subtext to the movie or not. I need more Korean intel before I can decide. But can I admit something? When the crowd of people at the river reacts to the thing in the water by pelting it with garbage, it made me feel irrational rage and hatred.

Kristine: Oh god, been to a zoo lately?

Sean: And I was sort of like, You deserve to get rampaged.

Kristine: Fucking rednecks throwing trash at bears.

Sean: Um, you’re in Texas, Dorothy. I’ve never had a bad experience with people at the zoos in Tucson or Phoenix.

Kristine: I finally listened to that discussion on the Slate Culture Gabfest about the bear attacks. It reminds me of this movie, because the mama bear is the main killer, right?

Sean: But there is no “she’s just protecting her babies” in this movie.

“Sorrow in Yoga Pants”

Kristine: Kind of there is, if we think of the stolen children as “hers.” But the movie obviously sets her up to be sympathetic, and she doesn’t kill the kids on purpose I don’t think. I love that monster.

Sean: Is the daughter killed by the cops shooting the monster? Or by suffocating in her belly?

Kristine: I don’t remember. That monster is just surviving.

Sean: Do you kill bugs? Or do you put them outside?

Kristine: Depends.

Sean: On?

Kristine: I try to put them outside unless they are roaches. Spiders I kill and then I feel horrible but I have to because of my toxic spider bite experience. Unless they are daddy long legs or something easily identifiable. You?

Sean: It depends not just on the kind of bug but on my mood and what the bug is doing.  Some moths I will kill, some I will put outside. If they divebomb my face they die.

Kristine: Mosquitos = die.

Sean: Beetles I always put outside. Spiders I try to put outside. Mosquitos, flies and roaches all must die.

Kristine: What would you and your bf do if you lived in Texas and there were possums everywhere?

Sean: Are there possums everywhere in Texas?

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: Where are the armadillos?

Kristine: Armadillos don’t bother people as much, and I haven’t seen any this year. Last summer they were all squished in the highway from trying to find water.

Sean: Have possums attacked you? Do they hiss evilly at your face?

Kristine: Sort of… It makes me sad because people are evil to possums because they are ugly. Like, they trap a pregnant possum in a cage and shoot pellets into it.

Sean: Ugh. People are sadists.

Ratings Roundup

The Girls Rating: A worthy film, but won’t keep me up at night.

The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece!

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15 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Bong Joon-ho’s The Host [Gwoemul] (2006)

  1. Sean, you nail it when you say, “Korean movies really take their time.” I think I’d prefer to see the clips you put together. As it was, I felt lied to by the blurb on the DVD case (no one’s fault but mine, for taking it seriously), and a bit befuddled by the mix of genres. I usually enjoy a good monster flick, but in this instance I just don’t feel inspired to revisit it, despite appreciating that, overall, the film is well done.

    Re Hostel, I had a very similar response to your boyfriend, although I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the horror realm throughout my life. Curious.

    1. Kath, that’s exactly how I felt. I rarely feel say, “I know this is a good movie but it’s just not for me” and that’s how I feel about The Host. Usually, if I am not into something, I say, “This is obviously crappy and everyone is lying to themselves when they say they like it!” But I can totally see why people would think The Host was great, and I really wanted to love it. I feel like I am missing out on something…but I don’t care enough to revisit it and find out what that might be.

    2. I am very very worried about seeing Hostel. I spend way more time being anxious about films we haven’t watched yet then I do being scared by ones we have…
      Kath, let me ask you this – do you still think about Hostel and if so, does it still bother you? I had horrible feelings about Wolf Creek that lasted at least 6 months and still crop up from time to time.

      1. Kristine, yes, Hostel creeps into my mind now and then. And yes, it bothers me when it does. When a friend’s son was recently traveling to Prague, the first thing I said was, “He’s not staying in a hostel, is he?” I was completely serious. Hostel planted that seed.

        I doubt this is what you want to hear, but I think these feelings of unease are a long-term thing, just as I think the fears kindled by Wolf Creek are. I saw Wolf Creek about a year after it came out, (so, circa 2006) and I still think about it from time to time. When it was on television last year and I stumbled across it while channel-surfing, I had to keep it on in the background, because it felt “safer” to have it going on where I could monitor it, and know when it was over. Weird, and akin to Joey’s placing books into the freezer when they get too much to handle, I know.

        Having said all of this, once my friend and I talked about Hostel (again — she introduced me to it), I was totally fine. It’s only when fears are left unspoken that they snowball into something nasty. (I also felt better knowing that her son had seen the movie.)

        For me, the fears these films in particular awaken (or prey on) are founded on the knowledge that these horrors could actually happen. With Wolf Creek, I know it happens. With Hostel, I have a strong suspicion. Although films featuring the human being as the ultimate prey, or the ultimate kill, have been around for a long time, Hostel suggests a plausible scenario — for me, anyway — and that terrifies me.

        Films which elicit a lingering response, even a negative one, are not necessarily a bad thing. Until now, I’ve never commented on a blog other than Sarah’s; but when I saw the link to your Wolf Creek discussion among others on her WordPress page, it was that lingering fear which prompted me to click it. Good thing, I think. Now we can watch Hostel together — in the ethereal sense of the word.

        1. Ladies, on the subject of visceral freak-out reactions to movies, you HAVE GOT to watch this video of a guy losing it after “The Woman” was screened at Sundance:

          1. Wow. I kind of want to see The Woman now.

            Two things came to mind as I watched this: we prepare ourselves to watch various genres — particularly horror — and this guy, I suspect, was unaware he was about to be presented with horror; and, his response is mostly linked to his deepseated offense at the film’s attempt (as he sees it) to normalise the perverted. I had a similar response to Easton-Ellis’ American Psycho when I read it. I didn’t yell at people, but I experienced that deep shock, and asked that same question about purpose. But then I realised that eliciting that response was part of Easton-Ellis’ goal. Perhaps the makers of The Woman had a similar goal?

            Thanks for sharing.

  2. that dude freaking out over The Woman has got to be the biggest over reacting dummyhead I have seen in awhile. That movie did not deserve that sort of response at all. He must have been paid well.

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