The Host (Gwoemul) is a 2006 Korean film directed by Bong Joon-ho, who gave us films like Madeo, Snowpiercer, and the Oscar-winning Parasite. The plot is centered on a family desperately trying to retrieve their daughter from the clutches of a monster that emerges from the Han river. The Host cast includes Kang-ho Song, Hee-Bong, Hae-il Park, Doona Bae, and Ko Asung, to name a few. This article is written by Swetha Srinath, who is an avid traveler and a professional photographer, and you can follow her work on her Website & her Instagram. Here’s the detailed plot analysis and explanation of the film The Host, spoilers ahead.
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The Host: Plot Explanation
Bong Joon-ho is a master at misdirections and genre mash-ups. This is something we need to remember before watching any of his movies. I will come back to this later once we have understood the storyline. Bong Joon-ho’s film The Host opens with an eerie scene of a massive stock of formaldehyde being poured down the drain by a pathologist’s assistant, who is just following what seems to be a spiteful order by his American superior even with knowing the risk of causing a biohazard. If you know Bong Joon-ho style by now, you will be pushed slightly beyond the edge of your imagination in many scenes, and in this one, it’s with the sheer amount of formaldehyde that goes down the drain. What follows is the inevitable. A few years later, two daily fishermen spot a fish with more number of tails than it should have in Han River in Seoul, and thus the story of what to us evidently looks like a science fiction movie begins.
The Calm Before The Storm
We are introduced to the Park family on a pleasant afternoon by the Han river, Where Gang-du and his dad Hie-bong own a snack stall. Gang-du seems slightly slow at picking up things but is very fond of his daughter Hyun-seo, and in a few moments, you understand that she means the world to him and is very proud of her. Gang-du’s younger sister Nam-Joo is an archer, a self-sabotaging one at that. Her national level tournament is being broadcast on the TV and Gang-du’s younger brother who is an unemployed university graduate but also a drunk, Nam-il makes this family of five complete. Hei-bong clearly seems to have provided for his three children and now his grandchild by selling Ramen noodles and snacks at the stall. As the afternoon unfolds, we see that the grandfather is the one calling the shots for the snack stall and gives Gang-du a good scolding for serving a roasted squid with fewer legs to their customer. Even in this relaxed atmosphere, we have a foreshadowing of something unnatural about to happen.
The Host’s Monster Emerges
What follows is maybe one of the best monster (mutant creature) reveals in this genre. Within a few minutes of contemplation of “oh what is that in the river?”, without rising your anticipation with background score, without parts of the monster’s body being shown here and there (like a tail, or a limb – think back to jaws, Godzilla, Jurassic park and so on), just like that, we see the monster, clearly, running towards people at the riverside in broad daylight! The Monster, The Host. In the next few minutes, you witness the monster’s rampage on the riverside with some (if I may say so) amazing kills that are shot very well, alternating between ambient sounds and the drumbeats. Gang-du not only follows the monster but also tries to save a few victims with the help of another American soldier who happens to be there. But in the process, he ends up getting some of the creature’s blood on himself while being heroic.
Joon-ho’s Misdirection in The Host
All this while Hyun-seo and her grandfather are inside at the back of their snack stall, trying to cheer her aunt, who ends up winning the bronze medal because she is too late to shoot the arrow and runs out of time because she is busy contemplating the shot. They are absolutely unaware of what is happening outside. A disheartened Hyun-seo, because of her aunt’s loss, comes out of the shack. The scene again cuts to a sudden calm with Hyun-seo staring at the hissing beer can that she just kicked. Slowly the screams of people get added around her. Before she realizes what is happening, she’s dragged by her father alongside a crowd running away from something. But after a few meters, they trip and fall, and in that confusion, Gang-du grabs another girl’s hand without looking and continues to run. When he realizes his mistake and turns back to Hyun-seo, his silent scream says it all. The monster is running towards her, and she hasn’t seen it yet. Anyone watching is expecting the inevitable death or worse eaten by the beast. But at that moment, in absolute silence, the monster picks up Hyun-seo by the tail and jumps into the river. It goes to the other bank and keeps her in its mouth and swims away. These few minutes of cinematography and writing by the riverside is pure brilliance to watch. This is the first indication to the audience that the monster sweeps its victim by its prehensile tail rather than kill or eat them. This sure means that it’s not your everyday monster movie, but perhaps a film about a kidnapper. Only that the kidnapper is a monster in this case. If we didn’t catch on with his misdirection here, we will in a bit.
The Mass Funeral
Members of the Park family come together in a mass funeral for the victims of that afternoon. The Park family is weirdly different. From the slow-witted Gang-du, to the kind and soft-spoken national champion archer sister, Nam-joo, the alcoholic yet the clever brother Nam-il and their father who seems to be proud of them, mourning for Hyun-seo who is very dear to all of them. Even at a time of mourning, at a mass funeral, Bong adds a bit of slapstick humour, that has you laughing, though not taking away from the tragedy in his masterful ways. Their anguish is evident. The Park family makes a silent vow to somehow avenge for their loss, though it seems like the words of a grieving grandfather and nothing much. But simultaneously, we realize that the authorities have deemed this mutated creature could be the host of some sort of a virus as the American soldier who fought alongside Gang-du earlier seemed to have developed some symptoms and weird rashes. As I write this in early 2020, sitting locked down at home because of a virus, the irony is not lost on me. Bong again tugs at the hypocrisies of governments around the world in withholding information even in dire situations. They don’t seem to know much details as information about the soldier is deemed classified by the U.S.A. So at the mass funeral, everyone present is quarantined, and sadly for Gang-du, as soon as he mentions that he had the blood of the creature splattered on his face, he is taken away for isolation in a dramatic manner. All of Seoul is locked down, and only people trained for disinfecting the areas around the Han river and searching for the mutant creature are allowed to move around the city.
Hyun-seo is Alive!
Strangely enough, we realize everyone is soon put together in a crowded hospital space for quarantine, even Gang-du, who was considered high risk, is there. We see doctors and nurses all present there without protective gear. Late at night, while Gang-du contemplates by himself if he is infected, he suddenly gets a phone call from Hyun-seo on his mobile, a distorted call. Still, he is clearly able to catch that she is captured by the creature and is in a big sewer somewhere underground. This leads to the family just staring back at each other, wondering what to do. Does this remind you of something else by now? I am not inciting anything, but oddly enough, I am thinking of Stranger Things, I am thinking of Will Byers giving a call to his mum after he was taken away by the creature to the upside-down! (keep your mind open for this as the story progresses!) . We are then shown the monster collecting a few more victims, mostly dead and placing them in its hideout – a huge sewer space. Hyun-seo hiding in one of the sewer pipes and checking if the newest victim is alive after the monster leaves. Grim as it looks, the young girl is quite brave, and her survival instincts are surely helping her there.
To the sewers we must go!
Back in the hospital, no one seems to believe the Park family that Hyun-seo is alive and in the monster’s lair. Though the scene plays out as a comedy, their despair is evident. Like any person who has known and experienced prolonged hunger, as the thought of Hyun-seo starving down there cross their minds, it triggers them to come up with a plan to break out from their quarantine area and go look for her. What follows is a very entertaining escape from the hospital. Funny altercations, revealing the characteristics of each member of this poor/lower-middle-class family as they make a run for it and try to bargain with a gang they have hired to help them escape from the hospital. They end up losing all of their savings for a mediocre fumigation van, two shotguns, a map of the sewage system, and two bio-hazard suit for disguise. Armed with these few essentials, they set out into the sewers. By now, names and pictures of the Park family are out in the news stating that they are infected with the virus.
The two kids and seo-ri in The Host
Two kids steal/seo-ri (right to hunger) from the Park family storage area for the snack stall. They only take the food items that they will need for the next month, and on their way back at the riverside, they get captured by the monster. The new hostages are deposited back in its hideout. While doing so, Hyun-seo is caught off guard but manages to evade the beast. Then she finds that the older boy is no longer alive, while the younger Se-Joo is. Hyun-seo takes him under her wing and takes the boy into her own little hideout in the monster liar. It is quite endearing to see her check if any of the newer victims are alive or even if Se-Joo is, when he is sleeping.
Death of a family member
The Park family by now has had a very long futile search for Hyun-seo in the sewers, and they get back to their shack. Being tired and hungry, they have a quiet meal of instant cup noodles around the small family table with Hyun-seo very much on their minds. This is a symbolic moment for the family. It’s a place of calm amidst the terror and chaos that has happened and is yet to come. Though all of them usually bicker and squabble with each other, this meal shows their solidarity with no words spoken. Considering the genre of The Host, it is a pleasant change to see this scene on screen. Such moments are what sets The Host apart. While the family is having a bit of downtime reflecting about everything that is happening before they start their search again, Hei-bong is empathizing with Gang-du’s state of mind as a father who has lost his child. They notice that the monster has come back to the riverside by their shack. They rush out with their shotguns. Though this is a moment of suspense and thrill, it is well balanced with comic relief. Sadly enough, they run out of bullets, and the grandfather is killed by the monster while his three children watch in horror. Gang-du finds it almost impossible to leave his dead dad’s side while the authorities arrive and capture him back for quarantine and tests. Nam-Joo and Nam-il escape even though they are torn at the decision to stay by their dad’s side or run.
Nam-il manages to get the approximate location of Hyun-seo by tracing her call to Gang-du’s phone. Though this comes at the cost of the friend betraying him for the bounty money that the government has placed on the Park family, however, Nam-il manages to escape that situation with his wit but ends up hurting his leg during a fall while running away from police chasing him. He sends this approximate location near the north side of the Wonhyo bridge to Nam-Joo, hoping she will be able to continue the search and rescue their niece. When Nam-Joo comes out of hiding and as she is fetching her archery equipment, she receives Nam-il’s message and rushes to the bridge. As she is entering into the depths of that location, she spots the monsters. She contemplates the shot, and the beast knocks her off her feet, and she falls into a sewage crevice unconscious, but thankfully she had communicated to Gang-du the location before she had spotted the monster.
Let’s just cut his head open anyway.
Gang-du, who is now captured and doctors are trying to put him under forcefully at the hospital so that they can collect tissue samples from him, holds his own after hearing about his daughter’s location. This is followed by a strange-looking creepy western scientist who arrives and acts like he is empathizing with Gang-du but also pronounces him delusional. He tells the other doctor that the American soldier’s autopsy and tests conducted on everyone in quarantine shows that there is no virus, but still wants to go ahead with Gang-du’s lobotomy to find it in his brain! As crazy as that sounds, Gang-du is prepped for a tissue sample. Bong shows us in his own crazy style to the depths that governments and authorities can fall to so that they can prove something they falsely or hastily claimed to keep their reputation and influence.
The great escape, almost.
Hyun-seo, by now, has made friends with Se-Joo and is quite fond of the little boy. As he tries her own quest at escaping this Monster lair by making a rope of sorts from the clothes of the other dead victims, but sadly she falls short by a few feet. By then, the monster comes back with more kills and digested human remains, It spots the hideout of Hyun-seo and Se-Joo, but thankfully the opening is too small for it to get in. The next few hours for the kids are terrifying as the monster lies in wait for them but falls asleep. What follows will give you the right vibes of the Monster movie and keep you at the edge of your seat. Hyun-seo musters up the courage to try and reach for the cloth rope that is hanging above the monster now by climbing on the beast’s back (CRAZY!). But of course, the monster wakes up, though Hyun-seo has instructed Se-Joo is get inside their hideout, he is too scared to move. Soon both the kids are caught by the monster, and it traps them in its multilayered maw.
Going after the beast
Gang-du manages to escape from the place he was being held and operated upon by holding a nurse hostage. He returns to the location mentioned by his sister and searches around the hideout of the monster. (A parent going into the upside-down to rescue their child, Stranger things, anyone?) He actually finds the monster’s den, but there is no sign of Hyun-seo, but then he spots the beast, going away with what looks like a hand jutting out of its mouth. He quickly realizes that the hand belongs to Hyun-seo. As he runs behind the monster. On the other side of the beast, Nam-Joo has regained consciousness and is aiming an arrow now at it. But she hears Gang-du shouting at her to not shoot, and she lets the monster getaway. Nam-il is arriving with another homeless man who has agreed to help him. Both of them are preparing a molotov cocktail on the way.
The Yellow Agent in The Host
Soon everyone seems to have converged near the river where the government is preparing to release the ‘Agent Yellow’. It is also a place where many have congregated to protest against the use of ‘Agent Yellow’. So Agent Yellow in The Host is said to be a state of the art chemical deployment system developed by the U.S to nullify the effects such as virus outbreak and other biological weapons. Bong Joon-ho is clearly hinting at the use of ‘Agent Orange’ by the U.S in the Vietnam war. But the news report in The Host explains the Agent Yellow with footage of the U.S fighting in Iraq. Make what of it as you will! The three siblings, the monster who has Hyun-seo and Se-Joo, the protesters, the police, and machinery to release Agent Yellow, all come face to face with each other.
Taking the monster down!
Despite so many humans around, Agent Yellow is released, and the monster starts to wither in discomfort but doesn’t really die. While it is busy suffering, Gang-du opens it’s maw and drags out Hyun-seo and the little boy she is holding onto tight. What comes next is agony as Gang-du carries his daughter, who is no longer alive, and Nam-Joo and Nam-il also mourn for her. Now all three siblings are determined to take revenge on the monster. Till now, the beast didn’t matter to them, it was only about rescuing Hyun-seo. But now, you do feel their rage. Nam-il attacks the monster with fire created by breaking the Molotov cocktails. As the monster runs away from the flames, Nam-Joo releases a firey arrow, for once without hesitation from the last bottle of molotov cocktail into the Monsters mouth that already has litres of liquid fuel thanks to the homeless man that was helping Nam-il. As the monster burns and tries to run towards the water, Gang-du impales its mouth with a huge iron rod with so much force that it leaves a big circular mark on his palm. With that, finally killing the monster that took away so much from this family. Gang-du goes back to Se-Joo, who is still unconscious after he was taken out of the monster’s mouth. Gang-du asks him if he knew Hyun-seo, he clearly wants to hold onto something that his daughter so bravely tried to protect during her last moments.
The Host: Ending
The Host comes to a close with Gang-du and Se-Joo having a meal together in winter in their snack stall and the TV behind them that is playing the news where the U.S government is saying that there was no virus and it was all misinformation. Both Gang-du and Se-Joo don’t bother about what is on TV and switch it off.
The Host: Analysis and Themes
There are many things to reflect upon after watching The Host. It is evidently clear that the film wanted a lazy, someone considered good for nothing to be the hero, to show everything that he is capable of to save his daughter and his modest yet courageous family. It clearly placed all the overwhelming odds against them, from a mutated monster to the governments and maybe even a disease against them. But they only focus on what is most dear to them. Hyun-seo. Bong Joon-ho has also made an apparent jab at the governing bodies and authorities that allow serious mistakes to happen either under political influences or external influences or sometimes just as a show of power. But who bears the brunt of it all? The common man. Here, the Park family. He uses genre-trope like a magic wand, to create misdirection, but yet to open our eyes to all the layers hidden beneath.
If we are all set to watch a big monster movie that comes to terrorize and kill people and the aim of the film is to kill the beast, then we are in all in for a ride. He exposes a monster in all his movies, they come in all shapes and sizes. But in The Host, by revealing the monster much early on, in full vision and making it just part of the scenery, Bong tells us to strap up and watch a satire on political commentary and drama of a family looking for it’s youngest who is lost. Apart from all of this, the frames and scenes you get to see in his movies make you realize how little attention we pay to the mundane and why we haven’t been doing that more often. He has the ability to pause at tender or banal moments and make it fit into any genre he is shooting. “The Host” is as entertaining as it should be, and if one is interested, as nuanced as it could be. Or maybe it is just a tribute to the Han river. As a Korean poet says -“We Koreans were born from the womb of Han, and brought up in the womb of Han.” – Ko Eun
Swetha Srinath is a photographer who goes by the alias Varied Reflections. Travel is her most favourite indulgence where all her five sense are immersed . When she is not traveling the next best thing she enjoys are new stories, people, places and experiences of a thousand different lives through movies, TV series and books with the company of her best friend, music.