In 2000, a South Korean mortician working for the United States military poured a tremendous amount of formaldehyde down a drain. A fictionalized version of this incident kicks off the plot of The Host, the 2006 monster movie directed by Joon-ho Bong. In the film, the rampant pollution in the Han River causes a grotesque mutation in what looks like may have originally been a tadpole. The beast that results is bigger than an elephant but much more mobile, amphibious, and hungry.
It’s as if the shark from Jaws could venture out of the water on its hunt, as it bursts at random to scoop hapless civilians into its maw before diving back into its sewer lair. It’s made all the scarier by the fact that neither the South Korean government nor the US army can do anything to stop it, riddled as they are with bureaucracy and ineptitude. They created the threat, and now they’re powerless against it.
It’s a well-worn truism that the best movie monsters are the ones that represent real-world anxieties. Appropriately enough, one of the earliest monster movies is the 1910 adaptation of Frankenstein, a tale that in its myriad shapes and forms has expressed the dangers of man’s scientific hubris. For decades, beasts like vampires and werewolves had meaning that was similar to what they’d had for centuries before, when they existed as folk tales. It’s when the nuclear age came along that the symbolism got a lot more concrete, deliberate, and specific.
Godzilla and Them! both came out in 1954, just as the dangers of atomic warfare were beginning to dawn on people. Supernatural beings were supplanted by mutants in the B-movies of the day. The Host is very much in that tradition, though it benefits from existing in a time where the line between high art and B-movies has been blurred away to nothing, so people were able to recognize its greatness from the start, rather than wait to reevalute it later.
The formaldehyde incident is just one real event that The Host harkens to. US forces attempt to combat the monster with a toxic mist called “Agent Yellow.” That’s nowhere in the neighborhood of subtle. That’s not even in the same city as subtle. It barely qualifies as a veiled reference to Agent Orange, and you can only call it that if the veil is made of plastic. The public panic over a deadly virus the monster supposedly carries (there is no such virus) makes the streets of Seoul look exactly like China during the SARS outbreak. South Korea’s history of youth protest gets a semi-affectionate ribbing. Picketers are portrayed as well-meaning but ill-informed, and meet unpleasant consequences for their choices. Main character Nam-il is a disillusioned former activist who still finds uses for his old skills of subversion (to this day, I’ve wondered if his trick for blacking out a building works, but I can’t think of a way to try it out without going to jail and/or killing myself).
The no-fucks-given satire is fantastic, but what makes The Host a truly great film is its focus on a family dynamic. Where the government and the military cannot intervene, a trio of siblings are able to triumph. It’s the struggle that exists in any major disaster – if we can’t count on our institutions, it’s up to us to band together. The family in this film begins the story fragmented and aloof, but when the chips are down, they save the day with teamwork, molotov cocktails, a bow and arrow, a broken pole, and a homeless dude. All of which are useful in any emergency.