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Apathy Is Power: The Host and Its True Monster

Song Kang-ho as Gang-du in The Host.
Magnolia Pictures

Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 The Host follows the Park family, whose lives plunge into haplessness when a monster captures Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung), the only daughter of the protagonist, Gang-du (Song Kang-ho). Despite the family’s efforts to save her, they are constantly hampered by their society’s indifference and incompetence. Following the Park family’s struggles, The Host offers a deliberate depiction of American neocolonialism as the origin of their struggles; notably, the very antagonist of the film, the Han River monster, is the outcome of a re-imagined scene of the formaldehyde incident of 2000 at the beginning of the film. The incident recalls white American personnel — Albert McFarland — actively demanding his Korean underling dispose of bottles of formaldehyde down the sink to the Han River, the country’s main source of water, despite the chemical’s carcinogenic contents. Hence, from the get-go, Bong does not shy away from the fact that the film nods to the many crimes instigated by the U.S. in Korea and their tragic ramifications.

The Host presents an apparent criticism towards Americans’ sentiments of saviour complex and the odd pattern in the U.S.’s reluctance to withdraw from the country, despite being the activator of many national tragedies, perpetuating the trauma they have borne. However, The Host teases the existence of a more sinister, looming force that actively leads to the protagonists’ constant struggle. In the film, a notable scene announces the death of Sergeant Donald (David Anselmo), an American military personnel who is described as having bravely thrown himself into the chaos and saved civilians upon the appearance of the Han River monster, on a billboard. As his death seemingly resulted from exposure to the virus the monster carried, the deployment of the Euro-American chemical system, “Agent Yellow,” to combat the virus in question flashes on the screen. Eyes glued to the billboard, the Korean bystanders in business attire and masks accept the implementation of Agent Yellow with little objection, almost consenting to another case of crime at the hands of the Americans. 

The quiet acquiescence of the public to the apparent beginning of an environmental crime is baffling, as the film ultimately reveals the true underlying villain of The Host: the Koreans who bestow a ridiculous amount of lionization and trust toward the West and whiteness through their compliance. The hard truth as to why American imperialism as a cause remains unnoticed in the film is because of the oddly acquiescent Koreans to the West; it is because of the Korean public’s constant internalization of inferiority; it is because of the Korean public’s inability to discern where to direct apathy and sympathy. Thus, under its crystal-clear message against American neocolonialism, The Host encourages the audience to explore why such forces persist in the first place.

The frightening layer of indifference from fellow Koreans that Gang-du and his family encounter is hard to ignore as the narrative progresses. Their first tangible encounter is when Gang-du breaks the news that his daughter, Hyun-seo, who was known to have been killed by the monster, is still alive in one of the sewers near the Han River. Even when Gang-du’s brother, Nam-il (Park Hae-il), suggests the police track Hyun-seo’s whereabouts via the phone she has called her father with, a laugh escapes the police’s lips as he waves Nam-il off, saying, “That’s not something we do for just anyone. Are you even aware of how complicated that is?” The police’s vocal tonality is imbued with exasperation, belittling Nam-il for asking for a supposedly rigorous task despite him being a nobody. To see the reaction of those expected to aid those in need, rooted in blatant dismissal, is disturbing.

Said case of unconcern is most evident in the juxtaposition between Donald and Gang-du’s father, Hee-bong’s (Byun Hee-bong) death. While a huge announcement of condolences embraces Donald’s death, commending his bravery in fighting the monster, Hee-bong’s death from attempting to fight the creature is reduced to a well-deserved punishment. Hee-bong’s death is only acknowledged by the cold medical words “one deceased” by the soldiers who find his body. It is frightening to hear the nonchalance in the soldiers’ voices, despite seeing a fellow Korean dead by the monster created by the U.S.. Contrasting to Donald, Hee-bong’s death morphs into a necessary vanquishing of evil to stop the dissemination of the virus, not a tragedy of a Korean soul who has endured generational trauma in the nation, instigated by the U.S..

Poignantly, the only form of sympathy and condolence Hee-bong experiences is Gang-du’s wails as a child who has just lost his father. Gang-du’s childlike babbles repeat the same questions and the word “dad,”  as he is forced to haphazardly pay respect by covering his deceased father’s face with a newspaper, just for the soldiers to rummage under to confirm his death ignorantly. In the face of tragedy, the public’s reaction remains indifferent — grief is disregarded, as Gang-du, still deep in his emotions, is ultimately captured.

The family’s desperate plea for help discloses not only the masses’ lack of practicing emotional sympathy but also their interest in transforming tragedy into their means of monetary gains, deeply affected by capitalist pursuits. This is not only depicted by Hee-bong paying nearly nine grand to a few brokers who helped them escape the hospital they were quarantined in for carrying the virus, but also in the scene of Nam-il meeting with an acquaintance from college to obtain Hyun-seo’s whereabouts by tracking her phone. Here, Nam-il realizes that his acquaintance’s gesture to help find Hyun-seo stems from the friend’s desire to acquire the bounty on Nam-il’s head.

Nam-il’s realization is especially notable, for the acquaintance is revealed to have accompanied himin many of the country’s pro-democracy protests in the late-1980s against the U.S.’s endorsement of the then-authoritarian regime of Chun Doo Hwan. Acutely, when Nam-il commends him for getting a job in a huge company, his friend resignedly responds, “My credit card debt is 60, 70 grand.” Here, the film demonstrates the ramifications of a market-driven economy influenced by U.S. intervention in South Korea and the drastic change in lifestyle and consumption habits that followed. In such a competitive and highly capitalist society, individualistic and monetary gains are amplified, resulting in the unfortunate glance of indifference being the only thing people can offer each other.

Ultimately, the Korean public is frighteningly unaffected by the procedures dictated by the U.S. due to the normalization of not only Western superiority but also internalized inferiority. For instance, when the captured Gang-du informs the medical officials that he has to head to a sewer at Wonhyo Bridge to save Hyun-seo after a call from his sister, Nam-joo (Bae Doo-na), the general reaction to his plea is unconcern — they shove Gang-du back down and inject anesthesia to prepare him for tissue extraction. Notably, while the Korean doctors and nurses haphazardly surround Gang-du and banter about menial things, their demeanour immediately changes when the American doctor enters the hospital. The Korean officials readjust their masks and stand stoic upon the Americans’ appearance.

A doctor in an operating room in The Host.
Magnolia Pictures

Said scene subtly delineates the Koreans’ acknowledgment of the absurdity of the U.S.’s orders and, more importantly, their failure to take action against them. This unfortunately results in an overwhelmingly ubiquitous reaction of reluctant compliance. The Koreans that actively restrain the Park family’s pursuit of finding the beast and rescuing Hyun-seo demonstrate a resigned acceptance, where individuals in a certain society engage in tasks not out of genuine belief but as a mechanical and automatic reaction to a particular outer force. Notably, the Koreans resemble begrudging peasants completing a bothersome task, void of voicing objections or triggering critical thinking and assuming a position of inferiority. Said mechanicality is ultimately revealed as the biggest cause of the Koreans’ inability to redirect their apathy toward systems perpetuating the status quo.

Upon encounter, the American doctor (Paul Lazar) tenderly asks Gang-du, “Mr. Park, I heard your daughter is still alive.” A notable contrast emerges between the Korean and American responses, as the American reaction is surprisingly imbued with unexpected sympathy toward Gang-du. Gang-du’s eyes light up at their compassionate engagement, only to be overwhelmed by a barrage of questions from the Americans as Gang-du wails, “Please don’t cut me off. My words are words, too. Why don’t you listen to my words?” As the doctor cups Gang-du’s face in a seemingly innocuous act of sympathy, the implications are utterly shattered when the doctor starts to examine Gang-du’s eyes. 

This essential moment in the film serves as a stark reminder to the audience of the root of the apathetic demeanour displayed by the Koreans — the influence of America. The sinister instance of the Americans’ feigned sympathy underscores how turning to American and Western intervention in response to the apathetic mass is not the ultimate solution. This narrative is directly mentioned in the subsequent scene when Gang-du is forced to undergo brain surgery by U.S. officials, despite the virus being a hoax, highlighting how Western intervention will inevitably lead to exacerbating situations rather than resolving them. Ultimately, a depressing chain reaction is revealed: the intervention of the West, capitalist ideals, and the apathetic masses all circle back to clinging to Western intervention for ineffective solutions that aggravate the status quo.

It is the questioning of said phenomena where The Host unfolds its most significant theme —  the formation of solidarity among people and the enduring effect of sympathy. As Bong reveals in an interview, families are broken down in the face of evil in The Host: Hyun-seo is torn away from her family’s embrace, Hee-bong succumbs to tragedy, and the orphaned Sae-joo (Lee Dong-ho) loses his brother to the creature. 

However, these families are mended and pieced back together through the reverberating effects of what Bong explains as a cycle rooted in sympathy: “At first, people who had no relationship at all have a connection as they form a protecting and protected relationship — a kind of virtuous loop.” While starting as a damsel in distress, Hyun-seo immediately assumes the role of a caretaker for Sae-joo when he is brought to the beast’s lair with his deceased brother — a small unit of a familial relationship is formulated in said instance. When Hyun-seo is discovered dead by Gang-du, leaving Sae-joo in another fractured space of loss, Gang-du breathes life back into the familial unit by taking Sae-joo to his snack truck, remembering his broken family and the deaths of his daughter and father.

The unexpected cascades of shattering and then the morphing of families depict a poignant portrait of a warming cycle of love, rooted in sincerity and sympathy. The unexpected solidarity among those who experience the repercussions of societal systems, paired with a genuine act of care and aid, forms a collective synergy against a system that fuels individualist motives.

Go Ah-sung as Hyun-seo in The Host.
Magnolia Pictures

Ultimately, as the film concludes, The Host invites the audience to consider the impact of American neocolonialism on the nation and offer a solution to the status quo. In a powerful final scene, the audience witnesses Gang-du and Sae-joo sitting around a table in their small shop, sharing a traditional Korean meal of a warm bowl of rice, various banchan, and soup. Simultaneously, the TV blares a dismissive statement from a white American official, downplaying the recent events of the virus in Korea as misinformation.

While a scoff of disbelief might seem to be the natural reaction to such an absurd announcement that reverberates with the irresponsibility of the U.S., Sae-joo suggests that they turn off the TV and concentrate on eating. Gang-du complies, and the two are left in silence, quietly savouring a spoonful of warm rice in their mouths and enjoying each other’s company. The gently pieced family unit from the rubbles of trauma and tragedy prioritizes exerting love rather than disdain, as their indifference to the West’s narrative reflects a larger theme: the necessity to reclaim agency in writing our own stories.

The Host acknowledges that the power of a certain hegemony originates from the public’s acquiescence and acceptance of established systems; it underscores that the root cause of the U.S.’s unwavering influence over Korea lies in the Korean public’s internalization of their inferiority to the West. Thus, The Host conveys that the first step to liberation from ideologies perpetuated by the hegemony involves acknowledging and waking oneself up from said normalized sinister conjuring.

The monster in Bong’s film is not merely a source of terror or a symbol of Western imperialism but, most importantly, a brutal, eye-opening reality that jolts us from our entranced state of mechanicality and indifference. It triggers a revelatory realization of terror that morphs into emotions of anger and sorrow, understanding the deep-rooted presence of these ideologies. It is a tragedy to remain unaware of a spell when it continues to hypnotize us to indifference when it affects our very being. How many tragedies must cost for a profound recognition?

The Host offers that the next step to liberation may not always entail overt resistance and that one’s use of energy in emitting fury toward the status quo must be transformed into a different emotion. The film contends that freedom ultimately rests on unshackling oneself from any presence of the hegemony via indifference — it entails the importance of recognizing the power of acknowledgment. The Host’s ending is a poignant delineation of resistance — one that doesn’t rely on anger and confrontation but rather embraces families and their significant bonds.

Bong argues that directing attention to those in need will eventually allow us to have agency over our narratives, completely void of external forces. Gang-du and Sae-joo have both experienced the firsthand ramifications of American presence through the loss of loved ones, whether that be a brother, daughter, or father, and still chose to direct their energy to appreciate the presence of their close ones. Perhaps the path to liberation lies in sharing a warm meal with loved ones, cherishing their existence while disregarding the prevailing status quo, which inevitably withers away in the face of indifference and redirection of engagement. If acknowledgment feeds power into existence, where else to direct said act than to those in actual need?


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