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(DV) Nicolini: The Host -- Apocalyptic Humor for the 21st Century





The Host: Apocalyptic Humor for the 21st Century
by Kim Nicolini
April 16, 2007

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Well, I finally got to see Korean director Joon-ho Bong's third cinematic installment, The Host (Gwoemul), his horrific and humorous ode to monsters and the working class. I have been dying to see this movie and was going to be horribly depressed and enraged if it didn't come to Tucson, where I live and go to movies. So yes, the minute it came to to town, I went to see it. How could I not? I mean, it's like Godzilla as High Art for the 21st Century. Sure it's about a slimy monster from the deep who devours a whole lot of innocent South Koreans and wreaks havoc on Seoul, but this movie is more than your run of the mill sci-fi horror fest. It's art! I mean, it made the cover of Artforum for christsakes:

Not only is it art, but it's Apocalyptic Art (my favorite). But it's not your standard nihilistic apocalyptic vision. The Host is Apocalypse with a sense of humor. Besides being awesomely atmospheric, horrific, and politically scathing, The Host is funny. It's like slapstick political horror for the new millennium. 
There are about a million reasons why I loved this movie, but I'll start with the monster. How can I not love a movie with a monster that manages to be simultaneously slimy, scary, butt ugly and cute? I mean, this giant squirming angry ecological abomination is adorable as it barrel asses through a Han River park and devours hundreds of innocent people. So what if blood is squirting everywhere and human legs are dangling from its butt ugly lips? The image of its giant mutated form galloping through the park is endearing, like some kind of great labrador retriever gone amok. It's not the monster's fault that the US Military decided to dump a zillion bottles of toxic formaldehyde into the Han River and therefore create this poor blood thirsty gargantuan beast.  
And speaking of butt ugly, perhaps butt isn't exactly the right word for it, since in all honesty the hideously flapping and fleshy cave of the monster's mouth is the scariest Vagina Dentata I've ever witnessed on screen. I kid you not -- this monster's mouth is a Hideous Flesh Eating Cunt! (Yet another reason I must love this movie.) And no I am not exaggerating. The mouth opens into folds of flesh. I'm talking labia and vulva galore with a wet slimy pink orifice right in the middle of the fleshy folds. The monster's giant vagina mouth devours human bodies whole then re-births them as the bodies slip, fetal like and covered in mucus, through the monster's lips. Indeed, the monster is some kind of abomination of maternity -- the monstrous mother who murders instead of nurtures. And this makes sense given that the little girl who is held captive by the monster and on whom the movie centers is a young girl who was abandoned by her mother at birth and is subsequently raised by her dysfunctional father and his working class family. So the absent monster mother rises from the deep and devours the daughter. Towards the end of the movie, the father actually pulls the girl's body out of the monster's vagina mouth in a scene that is literally delivered like the birth of a baby. The father reaches his hands into the vagina, grabs the head of the daughter, and pulls it through the birth canal until the girl slides out onto the ground in a mess of toxic afterbirth. But alas it is a still birth, and in the end, the father delivers a dead daughter.  
Speaking of canals, no surprise either that the monster inhabits the Han River and the sewers that network their way through it. Gorgeously framed shots of bridges and tunnels fill the screen with endless matrices and labyrinths that present like the city's vast circulatory system. Indeed you can read the city as a body and the river as its life blood that has been polluted by the Americans who have dumped its poison into the body and created a monster out of it. So the body is possessed by the toxicity which is both the literal monster and the US military who is ever present in the movie. This brings me back to the apocalypse and paranoia. Sure I love a giant monstrous vagina dentata in a movie, but I also love a paranoid apocalyptic narrative. Hence, The Host is the perfect horror for me because the real horror in the movie isn't the monster at all but the systems that created it. The real horror are the zillions of organized controlling bodies -- the police, the military, the state, the chemical corporations, the transportation authorities, the medical system. Every kind of organized authority is the bad guy in this movie, and they're all out to strangle the life out of the working class as represented by the central characters, a humble and dysfunctional family scraping by with a riverside food stand. Every single authoritative entity is filled with evil and malice. They obstruct liberty and propagate lies. And these authorities are splashed across the screen in a gorgeously artistic vision. They slither through crowds in their yellow and white chemical contamination suits. They fill the screen with riot gear and tanks and guns. They are almost always juxtaposed to masses of regular people in everyday clothes, so these uniformed and armored authorities rise from the mass of ordinary people like some kind of menacing corrupt abomination of nature (not unlike the monster in the river). Yet the authorities are also shown as ridiculous and absurd as they stumble and fall and are duped by the simple folk.

While all authority is portrayed as absurd and malicious in this movie, the biggest bad guy of all is, of course, the U.S. military which creates the monster in the first place then goes on to create a mythical virus to induce paranoia and propagate the "myth of terror." (Sound familiar?) It is the U.S. who, through chemical and ecological negligence, pollutes the body of South Korea and then who subsequently uses it as a chemical testing ground as it unleashes its newest weapon in biological warfare -- Agent Yellow -- on a crowd of young people protesting the US Military occupation of Seoul. Speaking of apocalypses, the scene in which the Agent Yellow is released from a hovering, menacing, carnivalesque yellow bulb thing is absolutely apocalyptically gorgeous. When it explodes into a giant mass of yellow and brown toxic clouds and bodies start falling and debris is flying and the clouds get bigger and more violent, we return again to that great cinematic apocalyptic moment that just keeps coming back: Zabriskie Point. Yes folks, The Host has a stellar and mind blowingly awesome Zabriskie Point Moment. And in fact, the entire movie is gorgeously filmed with steamy dreamy nightmarish cityscapes. Masses of people are punctuated by spot colors of consumer goods and contamination suits. Hence we witness the wedding of capitalism and contamination. While the colors are alluring, ultimately their influence is poison. The screen bleeds with dark grays shot with reds, yellows, oranges and greens. Each frame is perfectly composed, and the editing is clean and sharp. It is a piece of masterful cinematography.

Yet amidst all this art and politics and vagina dentatas, we have the struggling working class family trying to fend for themselves and survive in this environment of terror, poison, and authoritarian control. It's like Little Miss Sunshine laced with monsters, politics, and class. There is no shortage of humor as this family fumbles and bumbles its way through the movie. They fall prey to the monster itself and to the monster of the US military as they are beaten, consumed, killed and spit back out. All the horror and the crimes unfold with an absurd sense of humor that keeps us laughing while we are horrified. The Host is an apocalyptic sci-fi horror movie with a sense of humor, but the humor gets less frequent and the sense of claustrophobic foreboding really builds in the last third of the movie.  
Certainly in this movie, director Joon-ho Bong is championing the working class in the face of global power and corruption, especially of the U.S. military variety. The Host is no doubt an allegory of the brutalization of the working class by power, authority, capital, media and the technology that disseminates power and disinformation. Not only that, but it's a damn good looking movie and is a hell of a fun ride. Its ability to bridge art, class, politics, gender, and horror are what elevate this movie to the status of "Great Filmmaking of the 21st Century." And that's the overwhelming sense I got from watching The Host. That while it plays on sci-fi, horror and political thrillers of the 1960s and 70s, this movie is definitely a horror movie for the new millennium, and in the end I felt like I sat through two hours of one of the most amazing art installations of the decade.

On a final note, I do have some concerns with the way the movie ends, as all the female characters vanish or are killed. While the dysfunctional father delivers a still born daughter, he manages to replace her with a living son. So in the end, we have the father and son reinstated and all the female characters have been wiped out. Couple this with the vagina dentata, the monstrous missing mother, and the maternal abomination, and I wouldn't be too hard-pressed to give a reactionary gender reading of this film. But I'm not going to go there right now. I think I've covered way more than enough material here.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her partner, daughter, and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about growing up as a punk sex worker in 1970s San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn and  Berkeley Review. Additional film reviews are available here. She can be reached at: