What to Watch

COVID-19 and the Monstrous Prescience of The Host

Bong Joon-ho's acclaimed 2006 monster movie anticipated a future of fake news and murky "facts." Steph Green explores its relevance in today's pandemic-stricken world

When a problem is too monstrous and unwieldy to manage, it's not uncommon for those responsible to find a distraction to divert attention away from themselves. The “look over there!” ploy is a tried-and-tested tactic, used by everyone from politicians and governments to individuals in the midst of their own personal scandal.

The monstrous problem in Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 classic The Host, however, is actually a monster. It has slimy scales, sharp teeth and a fearsome taste for human flesh. After it leaps out of the Han River, attacks citizens and eventually retreats with a pre-teen girl named Hyun-seo as its prisoner, it's left to her family to get her back. With mass panic rife and protesters demanding answers, the government uses a time-old tactic to deal with the furore: distraction. In order to cover the truth – that the monster exists on account of their own doing – they invent the presence of a virus to terrify citizens into complicity.

Today, falsehoods are frequently at our fingertips based on the rise and prevalence of social media. In the pre-Twitter sphere of The Host, though, the government covers its back by merely stating that the entire fiasco “should be wholly attributed to misinformation.” But in a world where unclear communication directly feeds into rampant inaccuracies, the blame game is made increasingly murky, with all sides desperately scrambling to score points.

The smokescreen in The Host is both literal and metaphorical. Smog pollutes the frames, exacerbating the atmosphere of lies and opacity. All surfaces are adorned with a damp, cold slick of moisture, void of colour. The monster resides in a complex labyrinth of dingy sewers. What strikes you watching the film today, fourteen years after its original release, is the eerie prescience – particularly in line with the multitude of fake news that has arisen concerning pollution during the apex of the COVID-19 pandemic. After a false news story circulated about dolphins returning to Venice’s canals due to the drop in pollution in lockdown, eco-fascists, and then meme accounts, took the opportunity to share variations on the statement “nature is returning, we are the virus.”

As palpable paranoia thrums underneath the narrative, the murky blame of misinformation in Bong's script becomes increasingly difficult to pin down. “The doctors aren’t even wearing masks,” Nam-il says disgustedly, a character painted as somewhat of a class traitor for pursuing politics and a University education while his family work in their tiny snack bar. “All of us are fine, why do they keep going on about a fucking virus?”

It's difficult not to feel like we're looking into a mirror: on 19 July, hundreds gathered in London’s Hyde Park to protest against the wearing of face masks. Paranoid placards abounded, with many making the (scientifically debunked) claim that COVID-19 is a distraction tactic invented by the government while they covertly instal 5G towers, or that the virus is transmitted by 5G itself. It would be easy enough to dismiss these people as fools, yet to some extent the government’s lack of transparency may have served as the petri dish that allowed these types of conspiracy theories to multiply.

It's no secret that The Host examines the co-dependent relationship between South Korea and the United States (Bong himself has claimed the film is not strictly anti-American, but does offer a “metaphor and political commentary about the U.S.”). Just as Godzilla is a Japanese-created fictional monster awakened by nuclear radiation in a nod to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the monster in The Host acts as a symbol for decades of worsening relations between the two countries. The film’s explicit notion that public health carelessness is the cause behind the monster also feels closely connected to the COVID outbreak, with an American military pathologist blackmailing his Korean assistant to dump chemicals into a Han River source.

Despite its fictional premise, The Host does have some basis in truth: in 2000, the United States were forced to apologise after they were found to have dumped 20 gallons of formaldehyde into the Han River. Oscillating blame and accountability has become a crucial part of the COVID-19 crisis, with the American president resorting to terms such as “Invisible Chinese Virus” and “Kung Flu” in reference to the pandemic. But can the lone American scientist in The Host really be blamed for the mass murder of South Koreans by a monster he could not have predicted? It seems like a flimsy position to take, just as it seems unfair for Donald Trump to put all the blame on China for the global pandemic.

When Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) overhears an American scientist saying that there is no virus, they attempt to lobotomize him into silence in fear that he will spread the word. This bears a resemblance to the real life story of Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital who became known as the “COVID-19 whistleblower” in December 2019 after he began warning his colleagues about the spread of a SARS-like disease. Quickly, he was summoned and admonished by Wuhan police for “making false comments on the Internet about an unconfirmed SARS outbreak.” Tragically, less than two months later, he died from the very disease he had tried to warn people about.

Yet The Host has no real allegiance to any particular institution, and instead teaches us to fear both politicians and conspiracists alike. “Your daughter never called you in the first place, okay?” an officer informs Gang-du, who is hysterical that nobody will listen to him when he says that his missing daughter tried to contact him. By applying the jump scare fright of a monster movie to a chilling tale of political gaslighting, Bong Joon-ho anticipated our current reality, writ large and cinematic. We’re living in a murky time where we’re not sure who to trust, where an invisible threat lurks around every corner. When the spread of lies from both unchecked sources and authoritarian conspiracies contribute to a mass lobotomization of reality, it can be difficult to stay afloat. The Host understands how difficult it can be to decide who to put our faith in during times of crisis.

Steph Green is a freelance writer with bylines in Sight & Sound, New Statesman, and Little White Lies. You can read more of her work here.

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