JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

At the hospital, Gang-du eats a canned squid. This is one of several moments in which the film blurs or even inverts the distinction between the monster and the humans who pursue it.

Hyun-seo survives in the sewer where the creature regurgitates its victims.

Hyun-seo looking after Se-ju in the sewer.

When Hyun-seo attempts to escape, the creature tenderly restrains her.

Se-ju and his older friend take what they need after breaking into Gang-du’s family’s food stand.

Bong’s quirky, often incompetent heroes mourn the apparent death of Hyun-seo.

The creature swallows one of its early victims.

The creature’s mouth flares open, trying to ingest Hyun-seo and Se-ju.

Swallowed by the creature, Se-ju and Hyun-seo are nevertheless kept intact. Gang-du pulls the two children’s bodies out of the mouth in a scene that resembles childbirth.

Masculinity is reasserted with a vengeance when Gang-du impales the creature.

After it is assaulted, shot, and lit on fire by Molotov cocktails and a flaming arrow, the camera takes an interest in what the creature sees.

Immediately following the shot of the creature’s eye, we see this blurry shot of the water that promises relief.

Gang-du performs reproductive labor, preparing a meal for Se-ju and himself.

Gang-du, his siblings, and their father share a basic meal in the family food stand, shortly before their father is killed while attacking the creature. This meal is echoed by the film’s final scene, when Gang-du and Se-ju share a meal at the same table.

Se-ju requests that the U.S. news broadcast on TV be turned off so that he and Gang-du can concentrate on their meal together.

Gang-du tenderly tucks in Se-ju, whom he seems to have taken in as a substitute for his own lost daughter.

This AP photograph by Ahn Young-joon depicts protestors in 2008 appropriating the biohazard suit to dramatize the dangers posed by mad cow disease, which Korean demonstrators widely associated with U.S. beef imports. Here, the protestor on the right is cleaning the person in the U.S. "Uncle-Sam"-style cow mask with a vacuum cleaner.

 

 

Belly of the beast:
subsistence and reproduction

"Social reproduction is the fleshy, messy, and indeterminate stuff of everyday life."—Cindi Katz

If biosecurity measures turn out to be the true perpetrators of “monstrosity” in Bong’s film, the mutant creature itself turns out to have interesting, almost sympathetic qualities. For despite the many resemblances it bears to the ravages of the U.S. military and the IMF, the monster is more than a simple allegory of such incursions. Commenting on the film’s climax in an interview, Bong confides,

“When Gang-du…takes the pipe and strikes the monster in the mouth, I had a close-up of Gang-du and his face goes from rage to pity, as if he is thinking, ‘You’re sort of in the same situation as I am in.’ It wasn’t something that came as an accident. It was something that the actor and I discussed, that at this moment we should show some pity for the monster” (Bong, “The Han River”).

In other words, Bong seems to have deliberately encoded into the film a notion of identification:

“Audiences taking in a monster story aren’t horrified by the creature’s otherness, but by its uncanny resemblance to ourselves” (Newitz 2).

But in what ways can the creature and the humans it attacks be said to be “in the same situation”? Through a series of parallels, the film associates the creature not only with the devastating effects of toxic dumping, structural adjustment, and international intervention on South Korea’s environment and economy, but also with basic subsistence activities necessary for the reproduction of life. At this creaturely level, the film’s monster or “creature” turns out to have quite a bit in common with those who are pursuing it.

If the creature turns out not to be a carrier of disease, it does play host to the two children, Hyun-seo and Se-ju, through much of the film. Bong has noted that, strictly speaking, this is “a kidnapping movie” structured by Hyun-seo’s captivity (“Han River Horror Show”). But the creature’s intentions for the children remain a mystery. Why does it swallow and regurgitate, without killing, each of the children during the course of the film? Why does it grab Hyun-seo with its tail as she is in the act of escaping, only to gently lower her to the floor? This may be explained as a simple plot necessity: the girl must be kidnapped and not killed so that her family can have a reason to escape from the hospital and hunt the monster. Why, then, would Bong introduce a second child into captivity, instead of stopping with Hyun-seo? Se-ju’s role in the film suggests that there is more than accident—or even plot exigencies—behind the children’s survival.

Se-ju’s appearance introduces one of the film’s most noticeably digressive subplots. We first glimpse Se-ju and his older brother as they are hiding from Gang-du and his family during the family's search for the monster. Without explanation, the camera follows the brothers as they proceed away from the film's primary action to Gang-du’s food stand in the quarantine zone. As they ransack the abandoned shop for food, Se-ju’s brother explains that they are not stealing, but engaging in something “like melon seo-ri at a farm.” As they leave the food stand, the brother explains that seo-ri is

“an old borrowing game kids play. So seo-ri is a right of the hungry.”[9][open endnotes in new window]

This definition abstracts from the rural “borrowing game” played by hungry children to a generalized and potentially revolutionary “right of the hungry” to appropriate or redistribute food. Ironically, immediately after this hungry street kid mentions seo-ri, the monster, exercising its own“right of the hungry,” swoops down and swallows both brothers. When it regurgitates them in its sewer hideout, only Se-ju comes out alive.

The juxtaposition of the boys’ and the creature’s practices of urban foraging raises further questions about the monster’s motives. Does it represent the monstrous threat posed by a “right of the hungry,” or does the theme of seo-ri humanize the monster, which is just trying to satisfy its hunger? Does the creature’s habit of depositing undigested (and in some cases still living) bodies in its hideout represent a tendency to hoard that violates the ethics of seo-ri, or does it demonstrate the creature’s self-control in consuming no more than it needs? Such questions are further complicated when Gang-du’s father, in order to excuse his son’s apparent incompetence, explains that his son had been often neglected as a child:

“And this poor boy with no mother…he must have been so hungry. Going around, doing seo-ri all the time. Raising himself on organic farms. Whenever he got caught, he’d get beaten up.”

While Gang-du’s anomie has made his character universally appealing to independent film audiences worldwide, this scene critically contextualizes it by tracing its social and historical causes. Motherless, malnourished and often sustaining blows to the head, Gang-du himself regularly practiced seo-ri to stay alive. He, too, seems intimately connected with the monster.

Interestingly, the description of Gang-du as a “poor boy with no mother” could easily apply to most of the film’s major characters: Gang-du, his siblings, his daughter, and the two orphans subsisting in the sewers. There are no mothers in the film, and if (as Bong has suggested) “this weak family is in the middle of everything and the focus of the film,” then the film is primarily concerned with the effects of the absence of maternal support (Bong, “Exclusive”). Early in the film, we learn that Hyun-seo’s mother has abandoned her husband and daughter:

“It’s been 13 years since she popped out the baby and ran off. In a word, her birth was an accident….”

The only creature in the film that pops out children and runs off is the monster: it swallows them alive, then delivers them to its lair through its intricate, fleshy mouth, which resembles a vulva. In the words of one reviewer, Bong’s monster sports “a mouth that’s a Freudian nightmare” (Burr). The monster is implicitly compared with a mother, too, when (not yet having learned that Hyun-seo is still alive) Gang-du’s father vows,

“Until I slit that beast’s stomach and at least find Hyun-seo’s body, I’ll never leave this world in peace.”

In this context, the creature appears to be an externalization of a model of motherhood gone awry—of the shortcomings of a “weak family” that fails to provide for social reproduction. In his groundbreaking study of The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema, Kyung Hyun Kim attributes the absence or marginalization of mothers in contemporary South Korean films to the country’s rapid industralization:

“Frenzied postwar urbanization had seriously altered familial relations to a point where ‘mothers,’ in their traditionally represented form, gradually disappeared from contemporary-milieu films” (6).

The monster’s maternal features thus reaffirm the connection to the IMF bailout I discussed earlier. Post-1997 neoliberal reforms led to social instability and rising rates of “emigration, family desertion, and divorce” (Bello), as well as a process of creating a “casual” or “flexible” of labor force with effects that are, according to Harvey, “particularly deleterious for women” and therefore corrosive to households and families (112).[10]

On one level, then, fighting the monster is a way of punishing the “bad mother”—an externalization of the distressed functions of biological and social reproduction. As Barbara Creed has argued in a sweeping analysis of “the monstrous-feminine” in horror films,

“when woman is represented as monstrous it is almost always in relation to her mothering and reproductive function” (7).

From this viewpoint, battling the creature misogynistically compensates for anxieties about masculinity embodied by characters like the incompetent Gang-du, his unemployed alcoholic brother, and their father—a patriarch who dies after literally drawing a blank when attempting to shoot the creature with an empty shotgun. These crises of masculinity, in turn, register anxieties about economic failure (unemployment, families lacking support, the emigration of women and their employment in the informal economy). This reiterates a broader pattern of gender relations that Kim has observed in recent Korean films:

“Through the relegation of the political crisis onto the body of a woman, the male subjectivities in a modern environment are born. The disfiguration of the woman covers up their incompetence and instability” (274).

When Gang-du finally kills the creature by impaling its suggestively shaped mouth on a stick, the threat of undisciplined and excessively mobile motherhood is put down in no uncertain terms . Indeed, the climactic battle seems excessive, as the “weak” family, after recovering Hyun-seo’s dead body from the monster’s mouth, joins together in vindictively beating, shooting, burning, and impaling the mother-like creature, failing in their rage to register that the girl could just as easily have been killed by her exposure to a massive dose of Agent Yellow while the creature was carrying her. Gang-du’s myopically vindictive focus on the monster as the cause of Hyun-seo’s death effectively blinds him to the risks posed by Agent Yellow and international interventions in the name of public health. It also blinds him to the common capacities to feel hunger, pain, and hope that the creature shares with its human enemies and spectators. The film’s audience, by contrast, is invited to consider just these commonalities by two adjacent shots during the battle scene. First, there is a close shot of the creature’s eye, already pierced by an flaming arrow shot by Gang-du’s sister. Next, there's a cut to the river, which the creature, half engulfed in flames, is presumably looking at in the hope that the water will extinguish the fire. This creature’s-eye-view of the Han River inverts the relation between the film’s protagonists and its “monster” at the very moment when the creature is defeated, again raising questions about where the blame for Seoul’s sufferings really lies.

Whereas the battle with the monster seems excessively brutal, and (given the creature's correspondences with Gang-du and the practice of seo-ri) even senseless in its violent reassertion of manhood, the film’s final scene offers an alternative resolution to the nation’s broken families and ruptured social fabric. Gang-du fixes dinner for a sleeping boy, whom we recognize as Se-ju, the child befriended by Hyun-seo in the creature’s hideout shortly before her death. Their shared meal echoes the film’s only other scene of domestic harmony—a brief interlude in which Gang-du’s entire family (Hyun-seo, still trapped in the sewer, makes a fictive or hallucinatory appearance) eats a simple meal together in their food stand, shortly before his father is killed by the creature. There are two substitutions at work in the film’s concluding meal: the obvious substitution of Se-ju for Gang-du’s lost daughter, and Gang-du’s own transformation from a narcoleptic slacker into a responsible parent. Running the food stand, looking out the window for signs of monsters, and also performing traditionally feminized domestic labor, Gang-du is inhabiting the roles of both his own dead father and the boy’s absent mother.

The “weak family” at the center of the film has been expanded and strengthened through an act of adoption—an act that is particularly significant given the cultural stigma[11] attached to domestic, single-parent adoption among many South Koreans, and in light of the effects of Korea’s liberal transnational adoption policy upon the country’s population, gender relations, and social wage. As Eleana Kim writes,

“Adoptees and social activists in South Korea have criticized the state's continued reliance on international adoption as a social welfare policy solution…and its complicity in the perpetuation of gendered inequalities. Birth mothers—often working-class women, teen mothers, abandoned single mothers, sex workers, and victims of rape—represent the most subordinated groups in an entrenched patriarchy and misogynistic state welfare system…” (76).[12]

If the neoliberal economic depredations that are embodied in the “host” have created prime conditions (such as financial, familial, and institutional instability) for the production of both real and “paper” orphans[13] , then Gang-du’s adoption of Se-ju enacts a defiance of those conditions and a refusal to allow the child to either starve or be adopted internationally. As in its initial formaldehyde-dumping scene, the film’s conclusion is also grounded in recent history. Just before The Host was released, the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare announced that, in order to bolster domestic adoptions, it would allow and offer financial support for adoption by single-parent households (Park).

The Host thus concludes with a mundane yet unconventional act of adoption that to some extent restores Gang-du’s and Se-ju’s lost family ties. As an alternative to the vindictive assault on the creature in previous scenes, this quiet epilogue asserts that reproductive labor—cooking, housework, and child-rearing—plays an important role in the maintenance of life. Although Bong’s film—like so many recent Korean films—suffers from a palpable absence of maternal characters, its ending gestures towards progressive domestic conditions that, according to Seungsook Moon, would be necessary for the reformation of South Korea’s masculinized public sphere:

“As long as the domestic identities of women as mothers/wives/daughters-in-law mediate women’s citizenship, women’s access to civil society is practically and ideologically hampered…. [Q]uotidian practices of housework, childrearing and extended family obligation primarily performed by women overshadow their citizenship rights that formal law is supposed to guarantee” (138).

The spectacle of Gang-du and Se-ju sitting down to a home-cooked meal with the television turned off (the first meal we see that does not consist of processed foods like canned octopus or instant noodles) also offers an alternative picture of “bio-security”: social ties and reproductive work that require the support of the state. For the risk factors that are at once named and misrepresented by the designation “biohazard” would be diminished by a more equitable distribution of the means of social reproduction: health care, welfare, and social services, access to food, and an environment supportive of life.[14] Even this warm scene of virtual adoption, however, is ambivalent insofar as it depicts Gang-du performing household labor and raising the child alone, with no apparent help from the state or the outside world as the camera pans out to reveal the food stand alone in a snowy field.

In his influential report on Ebola, “Crisis in the Hot Zone” (1992), Richard Preston cites head of the National Institutes of Health, Stephen Morse, describing a scenario wherein an emerging disease could wipe out humankind. Morse explains that the genetic diversity of the population would prevent a virus from extinguishing the species, but

“if one in three people on earth were killed—something like the Black Death in the Middle Ages—the breakdown of social organization could be just as deadly, almost a species-threatening event” (81).

“Social organization”—which involves social reproduction as well as political and economic stability—turns out to be more vital than any emerging biological threat. For this reason, Ulrich Beck warns that neoliberalism’s approach to managing “risk” is perilous in its evacuation of public institutions designed to support social reproduction and civil society. “There is no security,” he argues, “without the state and public service” (Beck 12).

In its diegetic vacillations between monster plot, outbreak narrative, and a few mundane scenes of cooking, eating, and seo-ri, The Host incisively criticizes the interconnected phenomena of economic neoliberalism and biosecurity. Whether the monster ultimately allegorizes toxic dumping, U.S. military occupation, the IMF, or the CDC, its assault on the weakened, motherless family abandoned by the state dramatizes the devastating effects of all these phenomena on South Korean social reproduction.

Less than two years after The Host was first released, the vital issues of biosecurity and food safety resurfaced in massive demonstrations in Seoul and other cities. The issue in May and June of 2008 was President Lee Myung-bak’s promise to George Bush to resume U.S. beef imports, which had been banned since 2003 and which Koreans widely associate with BSE, or mad cow disease. Charles Armstrong reports that by June, there were

“almost nightly candlelit protests in the centre of Seoul and other cities, estimated to have mobilized over a million Koreans” (116).

Many of these demonstrators were

“women who were extremely upset that in years to come their children might pay with their lives for President Lee’s kowtowing to US export interests” (Hudson). 

Demonstrators expressed their concerns that mad cow disease might not have been purged from U.S. cattle, noting that

“mad cow disease can remain dormant for decades in humans who have eaten tainted meat” (Hudson).

In a striking rhetorical inversion of the outbreak narrative, South Koreans represented the U.S. as a source of contagion and scientifically-produced emergent risks. In this instance, biosecurity measures were invoked to shore up national sovereignty rather than to undermine it, and also to criticize the economic policies of President Lee. While beef imports were the most proximate cause of the demonstrations, protests also spread to encompass larger issues such as “rising fuel prices[,] large-scale privatizations, rising education costs, [and] attacks on labour rights” during the first months of Lee’s presidency (Armstrong 116). Despite their differences from the monster attacks dramatized in The Host, these recent protests demonstrate the extent to which the outbreak narrative is intertwined with issues of national identity, economic independence, political sovereignty, and everyday practices of social reproduction.

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