copyright 2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 51, spring 2009

The dangers of biosecurity:
The Host
and the geopolitics of outbreak

by Hsuan L. Hsu

Released in July 2006, Bong Joon-ho’s The Host [Gwoemul] garnered both widespread popularity as the highest grossing South Korean film in history and critical acclaim, screening at the Cannes, New York, and Toronto film festivals. The film is often regarded as either a South Korean version of a Hollywood monster movie or a comic inversion of the traditional monster film. When it was released in the United States and other Western countries in 2007, The Host received rave reviews in venues ranging from Rolling Stone to The New Yorker. Many of these reviews focus on the film’s computer-generated monster, comparing it to classic films like King Kong (1933), Godzilla (1954), and Jaws (1975); New York Magazine praised The Host as “one of the greatest monster movies ever made!” (Hill) However, Bong himself has described having a more vexed relation with traditional monster films:

“I have a real love and hate feeling towards American genre movies. I'll follow the genre conventions for a while, then I want to break out and turn them upside-down” (“’The Host’-Bong Joon-Ho Q & A”).[1][open endnotes in new window]

Writing in The New York Times, Manohla Dargis attributes the film’s originality to this dissolution of genre conventions:

“‘The Host’ is a loose, almost borderline messy film, one that sometimes feels like a mash-up of contrasting, at times warring movies, methods and moods. Mr. Bong would as soon have us shriek with laughter as with fright. But it’s precisely that looseness, that willingness to depart from the narrative straight and narrow, that makes the film feel closer to a new chapter than a retread” (Dargis).

As it unfolds through a series of digressions, fictional news clips, and multiple subplots, The Host combines generic conventions from monster movies, epidemiological outbreak narratives, news reportage, melodrama, and slapstick comedy. Early in the film, a gigantic amphibious creature emerges from the Han River, attacks dozens of bystanders, and kidnaps Hyun-seo, the daughter of the film’s protagonist, Gang-du. Fearing that the creature carries a mysterious virus, the South Korean military steps in and quarantines Gang-du’s entire family, along with anyone else who may have been exposed to the creature. When the family learns that Hyun-seo is still alive, Gang-du, his two siblings, and his father escape from quarantine in order to rescue her. As the family scours the sewers of South Korea’s capital city in search of the monster, the U.S. government and World Health Organization decide to circumvent the threat of an epidemic by treating the Han River area with an experimental biocide, Agent Yellow. Koreans organize a mass demonstration against the use of Agent Yellow, but the chemical is deployed just as the family and the monster meet to fight. Following this final confrontation, Gang-du matures from a layabout to a responsible parent, assuming responsibility for an orphan who was held captive in the creature’s mouth. Throughout the film, Bong inserts passing references to politically charged events ranging from the U.S.-led “war on terror” and the hooded detainees at Abu Ghraib to the 1980s South Korean democratization protests and recent concerns about SARS and avian flu.

Without denying the film's resonances with classic monster movies, this essay will argue that The Host can be productively interpreted as a revision of the popular epidemiological plot that Priscilla Wald has described as the “outbreak narrative”—a genre that legitimates Western scientific interventions and discourses of “development” while effectively blaming the results of underdevelopment on its victims. Through its intertwined genealogies of monstrosity, contagion, and biological hazard, The Host presents a critique of U.S. and international interventionism that stretches from the Korean War and the post-1997 structural adjustments imposed by the IMF to the biological and environmental harm caused by toxic dumping and chemical warfare. The film’s focus quickly shifts from the amphibious creature—whose most spectacular exploits occur within the first fifteen minutes of the narrative—to the monstrous measures imposed by international interests more concerned with preserving the health of the population than with sustaining South Korea’s capacities for social welfare and economic self-determination. The film thus shows how paranoid narratives of epidemiological outbreak mask the neoliberal economic reforms that have undermined traditional family life and the means of social reproduction associated with food, family support, and a healthy environment. Because The Host proceeds in the mode of pastiche—explicitly alluding to a range of popular films and genres that include Jaws, Outbreak, and news clips from the invasion of Iraq—my argument will pursue various points of origin for the film’s numerous environmental, economic, evolutionary, and social embodiments of monstrosity.

Toxic debt

"In another news report, we learn that the South Korean “industrial economy lauded by every U.S. President since Kennedy has mutated overnight into a nightmare of ‘crony capitalism’ in the twinkling of the I.M.F.’s eye” (Cumings 1998, 16)…. [W]hat one reads in a novel about alcoholism and domestic abuse among construction workers in Seoul can also be linked to the distant machinations on Wall Street and in Washington."—Amitava Kumar, “Introduction” to World Bank Literature xviii-xix

Every fictional monster has its origins, and more often than not these lie in widespread anxieties about social and economic stability. As Annalee Newitz puts it in her study of monster narratives in U.S. popular culture,

“The extreme horror we see in these stories—involving graphic depictions of death, mutilation, and mental anguish—is one way popular and literary fictions allegorize extremes of economic boom and bust…” (12).

In its opening scenes, The Host offers multiple genealogies for its amphibious monster. The first of these is based on an incident that occurred in 2000, when Albert McFarland, the U.S. military mortician at the Yongsan camp, ordered two assistants to dump about 80 liters of formaldehyde into a sewage system that drains into the Han River. The incident outraged South Koreans, and has often been cited by demonstrators protesting against U.S. military presence and by environmental activists. One Korean Times editorial, for example, notes that the Han River “supplies drinking water for over 10 million citizens,” and highlights the symbolic violence inherent in this act, asking,

“Are Koreans disposable people?” (“Editorial”).

McFarland’s light punishment—a thirty day suspension by the United States Forces Korea and a $4,000 fine by South Korea’s Ministry of Justice—further angered protestors who felt that Koreans and their environment were “disposable” to occupying U.S. forces.

The formaldehyde dumping scene  in The Host emphasizes the U.S. scientist’s awareness of—and disdain for—the regulations he is violating. The first words of the movie—“Mr. Kim, I hate dust more than anything”—draw attention to the incommensurability between cleaning up the military morgue and dumping toxic waste in the river. The doctor orders a Korean assistant to dump the bottles of “dirty formaldehyde” because “every bottle is coated with layers of dust.”[2] When the assistant protests that the chemicals will end up in the river, the mortician responds,

“The Han River is very broad, Mr. Kim. Let’s try to be broad-minded about this.”

The dialogue caricatures not only McFarland but also the cynical discourse of liberal universalism, which claims to be “broad-minded” while allowing and even initiating the despoiling of vulnerable environments and their inhabitants.

The Host’s widely noted anti-Americanism should also be situated in the context of ongoing demonstrations against U.S. military bases. On May 4, just before the July release of Gwoemul in South Korea, a demonstration protesting the expansion of a U.S. military base in the vicinity of Pyeongtaek was violently confronted by the South Korean military, who injured over two hundred people. In following weeks, demonstrations against the U.S. military presence spread. Two thousand students marched from Seoul to Pyeongtaek, chanting,

“Yankees go home! This is our land!” (Persaud).

Even the closures of many USFK bases were criticized by environmental groups, since South Korea accepted the closures despite eighteen months of debate about the environmental conditions of the sites (Slavin). In all these cases, the Korean government and military made clear concessions to the U.S., whether by suppressing protestors or by failing to exact adequate redress for environmental harm.

Immediately following the formaldehyde scene, Bong provides a second origin story for the mutated river monster at the center of his film. Years after the toxic dumping incident, and a few months after a miniscule mutant creature bites the hand of a man fishing in the river, a businessman commits suicide by jumping from a bridge into the Han River. Situated between the appearance of the small creature a few months earlier and the emergence of the full-fledged beast in the following scenes, this suicide seems to play a key role in the monster’s prodigious growth. The businessman may be the first human meal it eats. Furthermore, since Bong notes that such suicides in the Han River happen “almost every day,” the monster’s growth may be directly correlated to conditions affecting the Korean economy and those whose livelihood depends upon it (Bong, “Audio Commentary”). South Korean newspapers in the last decade have referred to suicides by unemployed or bankrupt businessmen as “IMF suicides,” linking the causes of their despair to the neoliberal structural adjustment program imposed by the IMF after the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997.[3] In light of this second origin story for Bong’s monster, which links it to the epidemic of suicides resulting from South Korea’s decimated economy, The Host turns out to be an allegory not just of U.S.military occupation but also of neoliberal market reforms.

Bong is not alone in making films about the post-crisis economic situation: Oldboy (2003), directed by his friend Park Chan-Wook, dramatized the dismantling of Korean business conglomerates (chaebols) guided by the state and also included a digressive episode in which the protagonist encounters a suicidal businessman (see Jeon). Rob Wilson, in a study of carnal and violent eruptions of “killer capitalism” in post-9/11 Korean cinema, identifies Park as a leading practitioner of

“‘IMF-noir’ [a term coined by Jin Suh Jirn], reflecting tensions and phobias released in Korea, as across inter-Asia, by the monetary and fiduciary crisis of 1997, unmasking globalism” (127).

The liberalization of trade, labor markets, and investments imposed by the IMF in the wake of the 1997 crisis has had devastating effects on South Korea’s economy. State-guided corporations and banks (whose collective success prior to the crisis had been touted as the “Miracle on the Han River”) were rapidly privatized, and businesses stayed afloat by cutting jobs. Economists James Crotty and Kang-Kook Lee attribute South Korea’s social and economic instability to an influx of finance capital that has made “[t]he Korean stock market…a gambling casino for foreigners” interested in “short-term speculative profit rather than long-term growth” (671, 673). Sociologist Walden Bello adds that, since 1997,

"The IMF has touted Korea as a “success story.” However, Koreans hate the Fund and point to the high social costs of the so-called success. According to South Korean government figures, the proportion of the population living below the “minimum livelihood income”—a measure of the poverty rate—rose from 3.1 per cent in 1996 to 8.2 per cent in 2000 to 11.6 per cent in early 2006. The Gini coefficient that measures inequality jumped from 0.27 to 0.34. Social solidarity is unraveling, with emigration, family desertion, and divorce rising alarmingly, along with the skyrocketing suicide rate." (Bello)

The nation’s “inadequate” welfare system (Crotty and Lee 671), widespread unemployment, and unraveling social fabric suggest that, in economic as well as environmental terms, neoliberalism has transformed Korean citizens into “disposable people.”[4] Austerity measures imposed by the IMF have not only decimated social services in South Korea, but also damaged its environment:

“The ratio of the Ministry of Environment's budget to total finance fell from 1.51 percent in 1997 to 1.38 percent and 1.36 percent in 1998 and 1999, respectively. In order to attract foreign investment the South Korean government, on the advice of the IMF, has abolished or weakened various regulations. For example the government has removed the Green Belt Regulation, reorganised National Parks and weakened the regulations protecting sources of drinking water” (Chomthongdi).

The businessman’s suicide associates the film’s overgrown, preternaturally mobile, computer-generated (by The Orphanage and Weta Digital, international firms based in California and New Zealand), voracious, flexible, and acrobatic beast with the post-crisis attrition of welfare and the means of social reproduction . The monster may have literally fed on the skyrocketing number of suicides precipitated by the dismantling of the pre-1997 state-guided economy.

These two originary scenes help account for the English-language title of Bong’s film in international screening: whereas Gwoemul is best translated as “monster” or “creature,” the much more ambiguous term “host” encompasses, among other things, questions about international hospitality. “The Host” blurs the distinction between the monster and the society it ravages. From its inception the movie asks: Isn’t South Korea playing host, arguably against the interests of its citizenry, to the U.S. military and to foreign investors who have no interest in the nation’s social fabric? Despite its incompetence and palpable absence when it comes to confronting the monster, the Korean military plays an active role in the film in enforcing a quarantine and suppressing demonstrations by its own citizens. Since the word “host” combines notions of hospitality, hostility, and armed forces, it significantly blurs the distinctions between the creature, the Korean army, and the nation’s hospitality to foreign influences. The Host is not the first monster movie to allegorize economic and social ailments. However, the international scope of the film’s satire calls for an analysis that triangulates between international interventions, the South Korean state, and the family of average (or below-average) Korean citizens who do battle with the monster. The following sections of this paper examine how national and international responses to the threat posed by the monster are structured by a pursuit of “immunization” that neglects and hinders processes of social reproduction and thus exacerbates already existing risks of economic, environmental, and public health crises.

Outbreak and emergency

"With the past decisions on nuclear energy and our contemporary decisions on the use of genetic technology, human genetics, nanotechnology, computer sciences and so forth, we set off unpredictable, uncontrollable and incommunicable consequences that endanger life on earth."—Ulrich Beck

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[5] , 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[6] 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:

“We can say that generally immunitas, to the degree it protects the one who carries it from risky contact with those who lack it, restores its own borders that were jeopardized by the common” (27).

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).[7]

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

"the proliferation in the United States since the late 1980s of tales of contagious and infectious diseases emerging in Africa and posing a global threat until contained by dedicated—often maverick—public health officials and scientists in the United States whose triumphs allow them to reclaim modernity. The stories, which enable a displacement of the uncontainable and domestic threat of AIDS onto those infections, are therefore at least as reassuring to a Western audience as they are alarming." (691)

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

“an increasingly interconnected world disturbs the lair of an archaic entity, a virus depicted as lying in wait, and thereby brings modernity itself into conflict with a forgotten past, emblematized by a disease against which contemporary technology is (initially) ineffective: the return of a colonial repressed” (690-1).

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,

“The next pandemic is likely to result in 57-132 million outpatient visits and 1.0-2.3 million hospitalizations, and 280,000-650.000 deaths over less than 2 years. 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” (Bong, “Deleted News Clips”).

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,

“America has a vital interest and direct stake in the health of people around the globe…. Our considered involvement can serve to protect our citizens, enhance our economy, and advance US interests abroad” (ctd in King 771).

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

“in an effort to foster the integration of underdeveloped nations into the world capitalist economy” (780).

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

“confirmed that the creature from the Han River, as with the Chinese civet wildcat and SARS, is the host of this deadly new virus.”[8a]

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,

“I can’t give any of that information without the approval of the United States.”

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 that

“the U.S. and WHO, citing the failure of the Korean government to secure the remaining two family members or to capture the creature in question, have announced a policy of direct intervention.”

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:

“Agent Yellow, which has been chosen for use here in Korea, is a state-of-the-art chemical and deployment system recently developed by the U.S. to fight virus outbreaks or biological terror. This extremely powerful and effective system, once activated, completely annihilates all biological agents within a radius of dozens of kilometers.”

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.[8] 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

“is no longer waged in the defense of the state (the Schmittian philosophy of sovereign war) or even human life (humanitarian warfare; the human as bare life, according to Giorgio Agamben [1998]), but rather in the name of life in its biospheric dimension, incorporating meteorology, epidemiology, and the evolution of all forms of life, from the microbe up” (98). [emphasis in original]

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,

“finds itself in the paradoxical situation of having first to create novel infectious agents or more virulent forms of existing pathogens in order to then engineer a cure” (91).

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.

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 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]

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.


Thanks to Martha Lincoln, Suzie Park, Mark Jerng, Charles Wharram, Edlie Wong, Shameem Black, Joseph Jeon, Joseph Heumann, David Leiwei Li, Sangita Gopal, and audiences at Eastern Illinois University and the University of Oregon for generously commenting on earlier versions of this essay.

[1] In “Globalisation and New Korean Cinema,” Shin argues that this hybridizing deployment of Hollywood conventions and other international genres is characteristic of contemporary South Korean cinema, and that this enables the films to respond critically to both national and transnational issues:

“These hybrid cultural forms provide an important means for…self-definition, a self-definition that not only distances itself from a xenophobic and moralizing adherence to local cultural ‘tradition’ but also challenges Western cultural hegemony” (57).

[2] Although the exchange about dusty bottles seems far-fetched, Bong notes in an interview that it was based on McFarland’s “real” reason for having the formaldehyde dumped (Bong, “Audio Commentary”).

[3] A longer account of the suicide that has been edited out of the film directly adduces the victim’s bankruptcy and exorbitant credit card debt as motives for his death (Bong, “Deleted News Clips”).

[4] David Harvey provides a useful historical account of economic neoliberalization in South Korea, arguing that it did not create new wealth so much as it unevenly redistributed already existing wealth (106-12). Naomi Klein describes the IMF interventions in South Korea as a prominent example of how “disaster capitalism” forcibly privatizes public and state resources in the wake of (in this case economic) crisis (263-80). See also Bruce Cumings, “The Korean Crisis and the End of ‘Late’ Development.”

[5] Bong notes that the biohazard “costumes” and equipment that appear in the fabricated news clips are of the sort that “you can see in a movie like Outbreak” (“Audio Commentary”).

[6] In Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era, Melinda Cooper notes that “Using the technique of DNA shuffling (hailed as the second generation of genetic engineering because of its highly accelerated capacity for randomly recombining whole segments of genomes), DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] is attempting not only to perfect our defenses against existing threats but more ambitiously to create antibiotics and vaccines against infectious diseases that have not yet even emerged” (91).

[7] See Mayer’s analysis of “virus discourse” in the contemporary genre of the “biothriller,” Dougherty on the “killer virus novel,” and Wald’s on the “outbreak narrative.” Mayer points out that, as a discourse organizing national security, the virus reflects an ambivalence towards the “versatility” of global economic relations:

“The virus, which may work its way from species to species through contaminated secretions or excretions and which is capable of changing the genetic material it comes into contact with, attests to a protean versatility that is further emphasized once the ambivalent nature of the pathogen—between life and death—comes into view. This ambivalence turns the virus into a perfect trope to envision contemporary world-political developments and interactions” (7).

On Jaws as an anticipatory narrative of public reactions to AIDS, see Selden, “Just When You Thought it was Safe to Go Back in the Water….”

[8a] Given the immense popularity of “Korean Wave” (hallyu) films such as Bong’s throughout the Asia Pacific, the film’s references to SARS and resonances with Western anxieties about “Chinese” lead toxicity expand the scope of its critique of outbreak narratives to encompass other Asian populations and products that have been stigmatized as “risky.”

[8] While the name of this chemical substance clearly echoes the herbicide Agent Orange, it also invokes the yellow dust from the Gobi desert that has on several occasions brought carcinogenic pollutants from China’s industrial cities into Seoul.

[9] Bong elaborates further, saying that seo-ri is

“different from shoplifting or any kind of robbery—it’s some kind of playing, game, it’s some kind of rural culture of Korea: young boys in the night invade a fruit field or some place and take some fruit or sometimes even chickens…. It’s some kind of culture of the lower class people…” (Bong, “Audio Commentary”).

The theme of seo-ri is present from the film’s first shot of Gang-du: he has fallen asleep while working at the snack booth, and a boy (Se-ju, as it turns out) attempts but fails to steal a piece of candy.

[10] The chaebol, state-led economic system that came to an end with the economic crisis and IMF bailout also relied on extended “familial” ties between salaried workers and their employers.

“By cloaking the demands of profit in the guise of older Confucian practices, labor itself gets recoded as the work of the family and by extension of the nation” (Jeon).

[11] “In South Korea, adoption is still not viewed as a socially acceptable alternative method of extending one’s family or parenting a child” (Sarri, Baik, and Bombyk 100).

[12] Sarri, Baik, and Bombyk provide a comprehensive analysis of the detrimental effects of transnational adoption on South Korea’s welfare system and social programs for children and single mothers.

[13] “An eleven-year decline in transnational South Korean adoption was reversed with the IMF crisis, which caused a concomitant crisis of overflowing orphanages. In 1996, approximately five thousand children were placed in state care, and that figure was projected to be double in 1998, leading the Ministry of Health and Welfare to announce that it ‘has no choice but to make changes to recent policy which sought to restrict the number of children adopted overseas’” (Kim 64).

[14] Social reproduction, Katz writes,

“hinges upon the biological reproduction of the labor force, both generationally and on a daily basis, through the acquisition and distribution of the means of existence, including food, shelter, clothing, and health care” (710).

Along with cultural and political-economic issues, Katz includes environmental harm as a factor in social reproduction: in both environmental racism and migrant labor patterns,

“there is a rejigging of the geography of social reproduction so that the costs of social reproduction—in once case environmental and in the other political-economic—are borne away from where most of the benefits accrue” (714).

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