In this monthly column, I’ll spotlight a horror movie from a country outside the United States that has flown under the radar. The goal is to showcase the talents of horror filmmakers around the world and make sure their voices don’t go unheard.
MOVIE: THE HOST (2006)
WATCH IF YOU LIKE: MONSTER MOVIES, SNOWPIERCER, OKJA, HORROR MOVIES WITH A MESSAGE
Bong Joon-ho’s name has peppered headlines recently with the upcoming release of his new film, Parasite, which won Cannes’ prestigious Palme D’or. However, Bong has been creating stunning films for years, one of which is his environmental creature feature, The Host (2006). He creates a horror movie that speaks to issues of pollution and corruption, while also adding elements of comedy and love through a family of misfits. It is a film that speaks to Korean horror, as well as their dark and twisted sense of humor.
The Host begins in 2000 on a Korean military base. An American scientist commands his Korean subordinate to dump hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde down the drain, which leads to Korea’s Han River. The scientist claims the Han River is big enough that a few toxic chemicals won’t affect anything. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Six years later, something has come out of the Han River: a massive aquatic creature that resembles a fish gone horribly wrong. The creature wreaks havoc on the people picnicking by the river and kidnaps a school girl, Park Hyun-seo (Asung Ko), daughter of lazy shopkeep, Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho). After his disappearance, Gang-du, his father, and his siblings embark on a search for the young girl in the face of a monster, government corruption, and family squabbles.
There is a scary grain of truth in this story. In July 2000, the U.S. government admitted to dumping 20 gallons of formaldehyde into the Han River. This act violated Korea’s environmental regulations and polluted the drinking water of nearly 12 million people. Activists launched protests against the U.S. government and even launched small rockets full of river water on a military base. The United States deliberating violated Korea’s laws in the name of quick disposal, and Bong wanted to illustrate the potential consequences of such reckless actions. Bong’s portrayal of these events earned The Host rare appraisal from the North Korean government.
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By marrying real events with a creature feature, Bong creates an effective environmental horror film that doesn’t bash the audience over the head with his message, but still paints a bleak picture of how the Korean government could handle such a disaster. There are four key aspects of The Host that make it a prime example of environmental horror: its monster, its address of medical experimentation, the destruction of family, and the incompetence of the government.
The Host’s monster is front and center from beginning to end. It is not hidden from view, or shown only in quick glimpses. Instead, it dominates the screen with its mutated, truck-sized body that resembles a fish mixed with a frog. Bong said the monster’s design was inspired by a news story he read about a mutated fish with an S-shaped spine found in the Han River. He also wanted the monster to be able to move quickly and perform the acrobatic moves seen throughout the film (it can really do some things with its prehensile tail). It also has legs like a frog and a mouth like a Demogorgon. It isn’t as big as Godzilla or other kaiju, but its smaller size lets it hide and reappear quickly.
The monster is the personification of the effects of pollution, a destructive force that leaves chaos in its path and consumes people indiscriminately. Even as the monster is first spotted, tourists throw food and trash at it into the water, polluting the river without a second thought. Bong doesn’t just look at the effects of Americans on the Korean landscape, but also at the thoughtlessness of its citizens.
With the discovery of the creature comes the revelation that it may carry some sort of virus. It is cheekily named “Agent Yellow” after the U.S. chemical “Agent Orange” and its existence sparks fear throughout the country. Gang-du comes in contact with the creature and is quarantined the government to run tests and understand the virus. He is shown enduring painful injections, tissue samples, and even brain surgery. But, the kicker is that there is no virus, as revealed by an American scientist. These tests being done on Gang-du are useless acts of torture and manipulation. These moments are the testament to the panic that governments utilize in dangerous times to control populations, and their cruelty towards those they deem lesser or somehow deserving of such experiments.
Destruction of Family
Bong taps into the effects of natural disasters on family, even if his central family is a bit goofy. Despite their quirks, they all love and care for each other and are united in their desire to find Hyun-seo. In a phenomenally comedic scene, all four members of the Park family are seen sobbing over Hyun-seo’s picture, throwing themselves around and screaming while the press takes photos of their over-the-top behavior. Underneath the exaggerated grief, there is love and pain for their little girl and the lack of information from the government. They must all go through hell and back to save her, including a few deaths that will rip into the chest. Throughout The Host, the family is separated, parting ways due to arrests and familial conflict; there are a lot of differences between siblings. However, no matter what, they all come back together when it means saving the young girl. They are shown as the only ones who care about the potential of a survivor and are met with constant denial that she is in fact alive.
Incompetency of the Government
Many of The Host’s conflicts could be avoided if the government officials were more competent or displayed even an ounce of care for their citizens. Police officers laugh off claims that Hyun-seo is alive. Sanitation managers demand large bribes. Nothing about Bong’s Korean government is redeeming; the heroes of this story are the Park family of misfits who do whatever they can to save the youngest member of their pack.
The government also disperses toxic chemicals into the air to “protect” the city and kill the beast. What they don’t realize is the effects it can have on humans. All actions are done rashly and with only one goal in mind: to kill the creature. However, human lives are an afterthought, as if a few small deaths are worth it for the greater good.
The Host is currently streaming on Amazon. Have you caught this film? Do you like environmental horror films? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group!