This blog post is a several-parts reading of SOME themes contained within a movie called "The Host".
I'm spoiling this entire movie for y'all! This blog post assumes you've simply seen it, & are still somewhat familiar with the characters + the plot. (I'm omitting any effort at plot summary, because that's boring to write!)
Reading 1 - It's sorta like The X-Files
This reading takes the X-Files-like assumption that government is perpetuating a rationally-minded conspiracy centering around the disposal of the river monster (so we assume there are relatively-believable motives underlying all the government ineptitude that's on display in this film). It's one of the less thematically-rich readings we'll be making, so it's not exactly the 'best' one or the 'real' one... but it's interesting how the filmmaker provides just enough puzzle pieces here & there to make an X-Files reading at least PLAUSIBLE (unlike say in David Cage's videogames, where the plot's rather conspicuously a burnt mess and the pieces seldom fit).
The most important idea to keep in thruout this reading is the following key assumption we're making about the plot: The Government's Waiting For Agent Yellow.
Since many thousands of humans did all SEE a zany river monster running amok in a big city (& since this reading assumes a realtively-believable world), basically everybody has to know & care about the monster. Regardless of any efforts the government's making to suppress information, we figure there have to be e.g. social media videos flying around, & people spreading gossip; we figure the U.S. government and the Korean government both are well aware that a strange people-eater exists in the river, & they're interested in the monster (they think it's some kind of terrorist bioweapon, or they're worried about accidentally having released a secret bioweapon of their own).
Agent Yellow is a very interesting MacGuffin. In this particular X-Files reading we actually assume Agent Yellow is intended to kill the monster. There's two reasons for us to think this way. One is that we've assumed a 'believable world' wherein these governments realistically know there's a dangerous monster in the river & are interested. Two is that we have it on excellent authority this 'virus' is 100% a hoax (the Americans in particular know it is a hoax). We therefore know the Agent Yellow gas isn't actually here to 'cure' people of a virus. Could be it's some kind of vague chemtrails mind control experiment, & nobody can answer why the dangerous gas is being deployed. (That'd be very kafkaesque! We'll talk about "kafkaesque".) But assuming somebody DOES have a rational idea about why to deploy Agent Yellow, the most logical target wouldn't be humans (who aren't sick). It'd be the bite-sized kaiju, which the gas obviously affects & seems to weaken considerably.
Agent Yellow can thus be read as something like 'a secret government Kaiju extermination project'. It's meant to kill people-eating bioweapons, potentially a lot of them at once (the assumption being that just like with bedbugs, "where there's one there's another!"). Sure it makes lots of nearby humans cough up blood; but governments consider this 'necessary collatoral damage' in service to the glory of their weird military technology.
The hilarious Captain America character who throws concrete pavers at the monster towards the beginning does not actually die from a virus. We hear that he died, somehow, in America; but not from a virus. Maybe he died from his injuries fighting the monster, or maybe his government killed him as part of some plot (or by accident). The important point is: The USA clearly does use Captain America guy's death to fabricate claims about some 'virus' as a bad excuse to intercede in Korea with Agent Yellow. ("Let me help dude! LET ME HELP!")
Since American soldiers do appear in this movie, it raises the question: Why not shoot the monster using one of their enormous machine guns? The US and Korean militaries have lots of very powerful weapons, & this monster seems weak to simple weapons. Why don't they bomb it, or use tanks like in Godzilla? I get the sense that the governments are both deliberately avoiding this monster, WAITING for something to happen. Nobody patrolling the river carries weapons that could damage the monster; there aren't any busybodies mucking around with clipboards. Everybody's just WAITING, & it's logical enough to say they're waiting for whatever Agent Yellow is.
In this reading they could easily blow up the monster using a machine gun, but basically the USA is keen to experiment with Agent Yellow (it wants to observe what happens) & so doesn't want anyone to kill the monster beforehand.
Looking at this reading overall we see something like the X-Files: Governments futzing around in secret with wild technologies, screwing people over left and right. We get strong notes of Korean resentment towards American military-industrial involvement there ("LET ME HELP!"), which is cool to see. We also get to view government workers, e.g. the hospital workers imprisoning Gang-Doo, in a slightly-sympathetic light (this reading is as sympathetic as it ever gets for those rather-awful hospital staff). They aren't inept, at least not in this reading; they aren't merely torturing people for fun, even if it looks exactly like that. They're technically doing unsavory X-Files or Metal Gear shit (earnestly attempting to save humans from the biohazards humans created).
Reading 2 - It's sorta like The Trial
This movie has Franz Kafka written all over it, & I love Franz Kafka! This reading is the polar opposite of our previous one: No government character does anything rational at all, & instead we have a frustrating/alienating/horrifying bureaucracy that flails around uselessly thruout the events of the film.
Key points in this reading include the dreamlike strangeness of how Korea's government tries to capture/control our heroes. Nobody handcuffs them, or locks the door so they can't escape. Nobody hangs around with guns & tasers trying to keep them in the hospital; no squads of police officers systematically search for them. There are wanted posters that pertain only to this one family (even though thousands of people got exposed to the monster & presumably many would escape from this inept government).
Just like in Kafka's book "The Trial", it seems like the family's interactions with their government cross back & forth seamlessly between the real world (the river!) & some dreamworlds (the surgical hospital). Nobody gets stuck in a prison and has to stay there forever, because that'd be boring. They get put in a prison, but then escape, but then government agents come around trying to find them, but then they escape, etc etc. They go on long weird journeys that veer between captivity & freedom mostly according to people's emotional state.
This family is being persecuted by a vague & unknowable government bureaucracy. Plenty of money's getting spent trying to find them (clowncars full of government weirdos) but people avoiding stating whatever it is this family actually HAS that the government might actually WANT. We hear the spooks muttering with each other sometimes ("what, no virus!?"), & various malevolent doctors offer a lot of verbal excuses (doctor guy explaining some bullshit regarding frontal lobes). The filmmaker actually designs these excuses to enrage us as much as possible, & make us think 'that is NOT fair + makes no sense'. It's totally kafkaesque!
Reading 3 - It's probably a metaphor for loss
This reading treats the movie as a fantastical retelling of some extremely simple story to do with losing a child due. There's 'a real-life story' & then 'a movie story' that each map onto the other.
The real story begins in 2000 when the U.S. military illegally dumps 20 gallons of formaldehyde into the sewer around Seoul. (This part actually happened.)
In real life there's some debate whether 20 gallons of formaldehyde in that particular sewer system REALLY would've PROVABLY given somebody cancer; of course in real life that's always how it goes. But in this reading let's just say somehow the formaldehyde gets into somewhere, & it causes cancer in at least one little girl who passes away as a result.
The 'monster' is grief, & it comes barging into the community out of nowhere like a natural disaster (devastating everything). It brings this family together again, like grandpa notes in the movie: They now have to team up in order to process their shared grief, & not all of them will survive the process.
The monster claims grandpa (maybe in 'real story' grandpa has a heart attack, or drinks himself to death, or whatever). The monster stalks Gang-Doo, Nam-il & Nam-Joo. Gang-Doo is neuroatypical so his grief gets significantly medicalized. Doctors tell him he's 'sick' & pump him full of whatever, but their attitude ignores the obvious truth that Gang-Doo didn't pour formaldehyde into a sewer. Society has serious problems that the medical-industrial complex ignores (instead turning profits off the symptoms of living in an awful world that they created).
In a certain way, this monster is extremely 'individual' to this family. Other characters get eaten by it, but only Captain America really 'interacts' with it (& only off-screen). There aren't gangs of citizens trying to fight it, & I think only one cop ever shoots his gun towards it.
What this says to me is that it's a metaphor for the way government refuse to support families in their grief (saddling familis with the 'individual' traumas of e.g. a child lost to an accident). Our heroes aren't getting any government assistance; when government shows up it's usually making something worse. Our heroes are forced to get by using only a little help/mugging from their friends (the way every survivor of every chemical spill sorta has to 'get by' in the end). We do see glimpses that really all of society is dealing with their own personal grief monsters created due e.g. to formaldehyde. We see the one 'Agent Yellow Protest' scene, which really strikes home the way bad things get done to us without our consent by our governments. All this shit they do creates thousands of little grief monsters, which is like a big collective action problem! Each grief monster is mostly only visible to the family it affects; meanwhile the shared actual problem causes seem unaffected. (Provably super-toxic chemicals! Everywhere! For no reason except making several bucks!)
This reading's climactic encounter is very bittersweet. Gang-Doo, Nam-il & Nam-Joo fight & defeat the grief monster by each exhibiting their own unique traits. They recover Hyun-seo's body in a symbolic gesture of coming to grips with this loss. They gain a new family member, now that they're sorta ready to keep living (in the 'real story' that's maybe another child who comes along).
Reading 4 - It's sorta about class
I mean of course it's about class too. This guy's movies are basically built out of class commentary legos, so the issue's never hard to find!
Every time the government does things in this movie, they never help, because they're assholes. Doctors don't help, cops don't help et cetera. The 'common people' we encounter throughout this story DO help! Yet hilariously, their help always comes attached to some mugging or scam (so it's like an extremely hardcore kind of 'trading game').
Grandpa kinda gets scammed by these four dudes masquerading as comic book criminals: They overcharge him, they lie to him, they outright mug him & threaten to murder him. But in the end they do help him somewhat! He gets a van, & some guns, & a dubious map. That's way more help than any government person gives to this family at any point throughout the whole movie.
Nam-il kinda gets betrayed by his former activist friend, who rats him out to the government agent clowncar in exchange for money. Yet at the same time, Nam-il DOES get something really useful: He hacks into the computer & finds some information that advances the quest. Activist friend chats to the agents, rather loudly, about the details of his rat money (wasting a little time); and hey, who exactly leaves the actual computer password on a stick right next to the computer!? (If this were just a trap to bait Nam-il in, why even bring him to an actual computer that'd have information on it??)
Plus it seems like activist friend knows Nam-il can get away from these fools without much trouble. It's easy money! For everyone... sorta.
Nam-il later gets mugged by Homeless Man (the IMDB name for this character), but in a really hilariously cursory way. Nam-il begins by just trying to bribe the guy in exchange for his shit, which the guy explains is RUDE. The guy informs him "Hey, this isn't about money". It's about trading services, right? There has to be a trade! So he cracks a liquor bottle over Nam-il's head & grabs his wallet (making them officially friends who are in this together). Then the two of them set out on a D&D adventure.
What this tells us about class is: Even for those who are caught up in the rat race fighting each other over scraps, everybody still has to have a code: We can still look out for each other (sorta). Don't just mug somebody and walk away! That person has a family. You need to help them a little; you need to give them SOMETHING they need.
You also have to help random endangered kids, even when it isn't your kid. Gang-Doo grabs the incorrect child to set up the plot of this movie, but his actions were not 'bad' or 'immoral'. He was still helping somebody's child; he was always still doing the right thing. By the end of this movie we come into an awareness of this, as we sorta let go of Hyun-seo's death (its something no character in this story could really control) & we re-commit ourselves to helping that new kid who's here now & needs help.
Reading 5 - It's sorta like a tabletop campaign
One layer of this movie that's fun to have a look at is the overt 'tabletop campaign' construction of this plot & these characters. Basically it's a D&D party hunting a monster. The monster is appropriately-levelled for them (they CAN destroy it!) but it's a tough fight & they take losses. Nam-Joo uses a literal D&D bow for multiple combat encounters which is extremely interesting & funny; this sets up a truly glorious moment towards the end when she finally rolls that critical hit.
Gang-Doo is a 'tank' style character whose superpower is that he's always groggy. Caffeine can't prevent him from being groggy; but also, horse tranquilizer can't prevent him from staying exactly the same level of groggy. Drilling into his skull has no apparent effect on him. He is an unstoppable force who grabs pieces of city infrastructure & hits monsters with them.
Nam-il is a rogue-ish presence who always wants to try hacking the computer instead of trudging through the ridiculously-huge sewer level. He makes plans, sneaks around, and generally manages a higher level of cleverness than most people he meets (plus he disdains useless authority figures & likes to dress them down). When bullets prove themselves ineffective against this monster, Nam-il thinks to try fire; but he isn't actually good at sticking to things, so he needs Nam-Joo's archery specialization to kinda yank his plan into fruition ('better late than never!' seems to be a recurring theme around Nam-Joo).
Overall this party comes off as something like 'the C team': a group of underdog adventurers that'll get the job done because they have to, yet rarely look cool doing it.
Putting these together we see a rich & complex thematic weave! All these readings are mutually compatible, I think, so they'll stack up on top of one another if you want to do that. (Or you can go in a different direction with certain layers, e.g.: maybe you could center your reading more around the history of Agent Orange in Vietnam.)
One major thing we're doing is reflecting on the forms & purposes & underlying nature of 'bureaucracies': In other words we're asking "Why exactly is the government so fucking bad?"
Is it ineptitude? Apathy? Greed? Malice? Is it just that Americans fuck around all the time & ruin everything? It's hard for anyone to know what to do, when large bureaucratic systems cause the death of our loved ones yet nothing we do seems to change the way they operate. We're talking chemical spills, car crashes, the criminalization of mental illness, or really anything you want! Every human struggles beneath these systems as a 'normal' part of life, but sometimes that can be unbearably cruel.
We're also reflecting on the question of 'other people', & how we should think of them. Are other people shitty, because nobody supported our heroic family in their time of greatest need? Or are other people doing fine, because hey at least grandpa found the guns his family needed in order to hunt the monster?
The scene where coughing guy spits into a puddle (then a bus hoses numerous bystanders) hits pretty hard for us, here during our global Covid 19 pandemic. In this movie the virus is fake, so it turns out that character simply had a regular sorta illness. (Yet weren't his actions rude nonetheless?! This movie wants us to think about that.) We're left with some profound sense that in the end, it's really just us & what we do for one another. Governments + big industry exist off in the stratosphere, always doing bullshit. We regular people will be left to somehow live next to one another, & somehow scrabble for survival (either helping or hurting along the way). It's gonna be fucked up; but within this, there are stories of bravery & kindness.