“We Koreans were born from the womb of han, and brought up in the womb of han.”
– Korean poet Ko Eun (1)
Han is a distinctly Korean concept that pervades Korean life. Scholar Suh Nam-dong describes it as a “feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one” (2). An unresolved torment, an injustice caused by a higher power – these feelings are not surprising considering the long history of division and occupation suffered by Korea. Since han is a part of everyday life, it also permeates South Korean cinema, often in scenes of melodramatic angst and tragedy. One only needs think of Bakha satang (Peppermint Candy, Lee Chang-dong, 1999), and its growing sense of despair as an ordinary man is slowly brought down by the circumstances around him, to begin to understand han.
In 2006, the domestic market share of South Korean cinema peaked at 63.83% and Gwoemul (The Host, Bong Joon-ho, 2006) was the highest grossing film of the year, selling 13 million tickets (3). The South Korean blockbuster had come of age and, like the recent economic rise of South Korea itself, cemented the place of its national cinema in the globalised world. Combining aspects of the Hollywood blockbuster, the Japanese tradition of kaiju eiga (1950s creature films and family melodramas), The Host reflects distinctly South Korean concerns. Though often masked with humour (both slapstick and satirical), it nevertheless bears the heavy weight of history.
The Host opens with an American scientist carelessly instructing his Korean assistant to dump formaldehyde into the Han River, an event based on a real-life incident (4). Like the return of the repressed, the past comes back with a vengeance when ten years later, from this callously wasteful act, a mutated monster arises that terrorises the ordinary folk of Seoul. This monster is essentially symbolic of the historical trauma of South Korea.
The past always impacts upon the present and South Korea’s recent history haunts the film, a history of division as well as resistance against foreign powers and military dictatorships. The Host explicitly references historical events such as the student demonstrations of the 1980s, the controversial levelling of the Sanggye-dong slum before the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and the collapse of the Seongsu Bridge in 1994 (5).
However, it is the uneasy relationship with the USA that takes centre stage in The Host, as the film satirises America’s presence and interference during the monster crisis. American authorities are portrayed as largely incompetent figures, yet maintain authority over their South Korean counterparts as they have done for decades. The absurdity of the inciting incident, where the formaldehyde is dumped because the bottles are “too dusty”, takes a dig at the recklessness of the American military. Fearing anarchy following the emergence of the monster, a viral threat is invented to scare the populace into submission. One piece of advice from the Americans authorities during the crisis is to contact the media, which continually buzzes in the background and helps to propagate the myth of the virus. It is not just the monster but also the American authorities who eventually turn against the Korean general public, bombing them with the dangerous “Agent Yellow” – a hardly subtle indictment of American military tactics during the Vietnam and Korean Wars.
The Park family, the central social unit the film centres upon, spends as much time fleeing the authorities as they do fighting the monster. Both stand as invading forces that are representative of South Korea’s historical struggle against repressive regimes from the Japanese to the Americans to military dictatorships. When Nam-il (Park Hae-il) questions the existence of the virus, Hee-bong (Byeon Hie-bong) replies, “if the government says so, we must accept it”. Though disguised with moments of humour, the anti-authoritarian sentiment represented here is clear, and is a recurring theme in Bong Joon-ho’s films.
But the monster represents a dual threat from both within and without. While it is born from the recklessness of the US military, it also serves to draw out the tensions within the family and expose their individual failures.
In a highly competitive society, where success in education and business is valued above all, the Parks are a family of misfits. Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) is lazy and struggles with the basic operations of his family’s riverside kiosk, and although his love for his daughter is unmistakable, his parenting methods are questionable. Nam-joo competes at national level in archery, yet crumbles under pressure when it comes to the final shot. Nam-il is an unemployed alcoholic, seemingly unreliable when it comes to family matters. Patriarch Hee-bong wonders where he went wrong raising this dysfunctional family and does his best to keep them together.
Each family member must overcome his or her deepest weakness and work together to defeat the monster. Gang-du must develop courage, take action and step up to his parental responsibilities, taking on the role of patriarch after the death of Hee-bong, and fulfilling his vow to kill the monster. Nam-il uses the tricks learnt in his student days as part of the democratization movement and joins forces with an anti-capitalist homeless man. Nam-joo must shoot quickly and accurately in what is the most important shot of her life.
There is no greater han than losing a child. Gang-du must defeat the monster from the Han to be “reborn” and given a second chance. His daughter may be gone but he is left with a surrogate son and responsibility for the kiosk. As they share a simple meal, in the background the media rattles on with the latest news about the virus. The television is promptly switched off, bringing the focus back to the shared family meal. Where there is han there is hope.
- Ko Eun cited in Darcy Paquet, New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves, Wallflower Press, London, 2009, p. 32.
- Suh Nam-dong cited in Tom Vick, Asian Cinema: A Field Guide, Collins, New York, p. 143.
- Jinhee Choi, The South Korean Film Renaissance: Local Hitmakers, Global Provocateurs, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, p. 36 and p. 206. The Host sold 3,571,254 tickets at the box office in Seoul, coming in well ahead of the biggest US blockbusters of the year: Mission: Impossible III (1,584,202) and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (1,525,853).
- Choi writes, “Bong based his film on the true story of Albert McFarland, an American civilian who ran the morgue at the U.S. military base in Seoul and ordered Korean employees to dump embalming waste down a drain. McFarland was given a two year suspension.” (p. 36)
- Paquet, p. 106.
Gwoemul/The Host (2006 South Korea)
Prod Co: Chungeorahm Film Prod: Choi Yong-bae, Joh Neung-yeon Dir: Bong Joon-ho Scr: Bong Joon-ho, Ha Jun-won, Baek Chul-hyun Phot: Kim Hyung-kun Ed: Kim Sun-min Prod Des: Ryu Seong-hie Mus: Lee Byung-woo
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Byeon Hie-bong, Park Hae-il, Bae Doona, Ko Ah-sung, Lee Jae-eung, Lee Dong-ho