In this news clip that was cut from the final version of The Host, highlighted text from a World Health Organization URL warns that underdevelopment, poverty, and unevenly distributed health resources could lead to an impending influenza pandemic: “The impact of the next pandemic is likely to be greatest in developing countries where health care resources are strained and the general population is weakened by poor health and nutrition.”
A street scene shows the breakdown of public life in the wake of fears of an epidemic. Face masks recall those worn widely during the SARS outbreak.
Biohazard suits from Outbreak.
While his suit echoes the biohazard suits from Outbreak, this Korean agent in The Host is shown to be incompetent from the moment he slips and falls when striding into the room.
Gang-du is seized and quarantined at the hospital as a result of his contact with the monster.
“I can’t give any of that information without the approval of the U.S.”
This image of Gang-du hooded and detained invokes photographs of hooded prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control appears in news footage during the WHO announcement of a “policy of direct intervention.”
Agent Yellow is associated, in the news footage, with U.S.-led campaigns in the Middle East.
In a scene that evokes the democratization protests of the 1980s, citizens of Seoul protest the deployment of Agent Yellow at the Han River.
The pod releases the biocidal chemical agent.
The American doctor with his Korean American translator.
“There is no virus whatsoever.”
Gang-du’s brain is probed for a virus that does not exist.
While it invokes numerous associations having to do with hosts, occupants, hostages, and hostility, the film’s English-language title more directly draws attention to the fatal disease that the creature supposedly carries. Directly influenced by Hollywood films about biological threats[open endnotes in new window] , this outbreak narrative erupts when an U.S. sergeant who fought the monster develops a skin infection and the government declares the vicinity of the Han River a biohazard zone. The film’s plot then shifts from the conventional military confrontation with a monster to a more mediated and abstract struggle against a contagious disease. Rather than combating the disease vector—the monster itself—the state deploys medical specialists to examine citizens who may have had contact with the virus, and it mobilizes the army to manage the movements and contacts of Seoul’s inhabitants. Bong’s interpolation of a satirical outbreak narrative into his monster movie suggests that discourses of biosecurity may constitute the real threat to the everyday well-being of South Korea’s population.
In recent years, a range of biological and environmental threats have made the possibility of massive public health crises a prominent issue in debates about international security. In the wake of anxieties provoked by the AIDS crisis, multiple viruses such as SARS, avian flu, mad cow disease, and the West Nile Virus raise the specter of widespread international epidemics. Likewise, the threat supposedly posed by scenarios of bioterrorism involving anthrax, ricin, or emerging infectious diseases has linked fears of biological epidemics to xenophobic anxieties about the porous borders of nations and bodies. Discourses and practices of biosecurity focus on containing risk and minimizing contagion in cases of dramatic outbreak, thus deemphasizing the various forms of structural violence that make particular groups and regions vulnerable to a range of maladies, both “natural” and artificially induced.
Discourses of biosecurity are at once nationalist in sensibility and transnational in scope. They encompass—and often pathologize—vulnerabilities in health, resources, and infrastructure produced by centuries of colonial and post-colonial exploitation. They often reproduce what Roberto Esposito has called an “immunization paradigm,” which he opposes to the reciprocity of communitas:
Insofar as it “implies a substitution or an opposition of private or individualistic models with a form of communitary organization,” immunization aptly describes the process by which states and international organizations protect themselves from “risky contact” with groups that have been rendered “risky” by the global community itself—by processes of colonization, occupation, war, and disinvestment that have decimated environmental, familial, and economic foundations for public health (27).
With the increase in public health concerns about emerging diseases, biosecurity has become a prominent theme in popular nonfiction, novels, and films. Genres that have been described as “biothrillers,” the “killer virus novel,” and the “outbreak narrative” have dramatized the horrifying threats posed by emerging diseases, the epidemiologically risky conditions of developing countries, and the heroic interventions of Western scientists in arresting the spread of contagion. Cinematic representations of emergent threats—which play a key role in reproducing “common sense” anxieties about biosecurity—can be traced from monster movies about nuclear proliferation, such as Godzilla (1954) and Them! (1954), to the anticipatory resonances with the AIDS outbreak that Daniel Selden has identified in Jaws (1975) and the Ebola scare dramatized in Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak (1995).
Writing about U.S. representations of contagion, Priscilla Wald traces the development, in both popular culture and medical discourse, of the “outbreak narrative,” a subgenre that dramatizes the outbreak and eventual suppression of horrific biological threats. She describes
Citing popular films, fiction, and nonfiction such as Outbreak, Patrick Lynch’s Carriers (1996), and Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone (1994),Wald uncovers a metanarrative in which
At stake in such narratives is a pathologizing projection of vulnerabilities reproduced—if not enabled in the first place—by modernization into foreign spaces, as well as a misleading confidence that the solution to such crises in public health lies in further biomedical research, rather than addressing economic and infrastructural inequalities. For example, the notion that epidemics result from a lack of exposure to Western hygiene, knowledge, and technologies diverts attention from the extent to which the increasing incidence of emerging diseases results from the expanded scope and mobility of biological vectors caused by climate change or the increased vulnerability to disease caused by the privatization of water sources and health care. In addition, such narratives downplay the resurgence of older, curable diseases such as cholera and polio in nations deprived of resources by debt repayments and structural adjustments imposed by the IMF and World Bank. Bong’s awareness of the international, economic sources of epidemiological vulnerability are evident in a news clip that was edited out of the film. The clip includes a shot of the WHO website, with a highlighted passage stating,
By exaggerating both the threat posed by emerging infectious diseases and the efficacy of Western science in treating them, outbreak narratives mask the economic motives behind many “global health” initiatives. In “Security, Disease, Commerce: Ideologies of Postcolonial Global Health,” Nicholas King provides a lucid account of an “emerging diseases worldview” characterized by U.S. interests in surveilling and managing epidemiological risks throughout the developing world (767). King shows that discourses of biosecurity are shaped not only by humanitarian motives but also by U.S. economic stakes in the health of people around the world. A 1997 report by the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine titled America’s Vital Interest in Global Health, for example, notes,
Thus, as King notes, U.S. institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and private investors in infrastructure and information services would benefit from a “global surveillance network” designed to identify and respond to epidemiological outbreaks. In the long run, the “emerging diseases worldview” bolstered by popular outbreak narratives attempts to distribute Western medical technologies and promote healthy populations
Perhaps the most catastrophic fault of such an approach is its blindness to the significant role of inequality in producing disease vulnerabilities: “In its report on emerging infections,” Paul Farmer notes, “the Institute of Medicine lists neither poverty nor inequality as ‘causes of [disease] emergence’” (261-2). The Host presents an incisive critique of the racial, colonial, and liberal presumptions that underlie the outbreak narrative. As the film develops its outbreak plot, a news program included in the film reports that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control analyzed tissue samples from the infected U.S. officer, and
The effects of toxicity have travelled full circle: from the bottles of formaldehyde in a U.S. military morgue to the body of an officer treated at a U.S. military hospital. Ironically, as the biosecurity emergency comes into effect in Seoul, we are shown a brief decontextualized news clip in which an U.S. physician is stating,
The emergence and characteristics of the virus are from the outset extraterritorial in nature: symptoms develop in the body of an American exposed to an entity created by U.S. toxic waste, treated in a “U.S. military hospital,” and further analyzed at the CDC. Details about the virus are U.S. state secrets. The mere knowledge that a virus exists is enough to justify a state of emergency and to manage the movements and affect of Seoul’s citizens accordingly.
When Gang-du and his family escape from the hospital, we glimpse a news program reporting that the United States and other nations are concerned that “Korea is not adequately quarantining the infected.” Even after Gang-du is recaptured (with a black hood labeled “Biohazard” placed over his head), we learn,
Further news reports—all of them accompanied by images that refer to campaigns in the Middle East, avian flu, and SARS—reveal the form that this intervention will take:
In Bong’s parody of biosecurity measures, “biological terror” is combated by killing every living thing in the endangered area. Depending on how many “dozens of kilometers” are affected, the experimental deployment of Agent Yellow could potentially depopulate the entire city of Seoul. Of course, since the monster was created in the first place by a biocidal chemical (formaldehyde), this second dose of hazardous chemicals could potentially lead to further mutations, and even more monstrous biological threats—not unlike the ongoing ecological and biological devastation produced by its namesake, Agent Orange, in Vietnam. The visual resemblance between the hanging yellow pod that delivers Agent Yellow and the pod-like shape of the monster underscores the circular logic behind this use of one chemical agent to fight the effects of another. As the film builds to its climax, the international community’s plans to deploy Agent Yellow lead to a mass demonstration at the quarantined Wonhyo Bridge. The final battle between Gang-du’s family and the monster is suggestively juxtaposed against the demonstration against foreign intervention in the name of biosecurity. Having so recently engaged in bitter democratization demonstrations in the 1980s, Korean citizens now mobilize—both within and beyond the film—against international encroachments upon their sovereignty.
In a provocative critique of the U.S. shift towards a militarized, preemptive approach to dealing with emergent environmental and biological threats, Melinda Cooper argues that “social, biological, and environmental reproduction” are increasingly being viewed as matters of national security (92). Under the emerging agenda established during the Bush administration, war
Yet, while experimental research addressing potential and as-yet nonexistent biological threats represents a promising site of capital investment, its efficacy in increasing, rather than undercutting, the security of “social, biological, and environmental reproduction” seems questionable. The biological research arm of the Pentagon, Cooper notes,
While The Host satirizes a similar scenario in which the possibility of a virulent biological agent leads to the intervention of state military and, subsequently, international forces, Bong’s disease researchers do not “create” so much as they imagine and invent their emergent virus. In a chilling scene, Gang-du overhears an U.S. scientist confiding to his translator that the U.S. sergeant who had been in contact with the creature was not infected after all but rather died from shock during his operation. Through a strange twist of logic that, as Tony Rayns suggests, resonates with the Bush administration’s search for “weapons of mass destruction” (Bong, “Audio Commentary”), the doctor insists that, since “so far, there is no virus whatsoever,” the virus must reside in Gang-du’s head. Assisted by a team of Korean physicians, he then proceeds to violently probe Gang-du’s brain for the virus. After superimposing a mysterious virus onto his monster movie plot, Bong leaves his viewers with an outbreak narrative without a virus. In the absence of a sensationalized biological threat to be dealt with by Western scientists in lab suits, we are forced to look elsewhere for virulent threats to biological well-being. In the following section, I will suggest that the dismantling of various means of social reproduction—including environmental integrity, family stability, and food security—poses just such a threat throughout The Host.