Popular Culture Feeds on Disaster

In a world of increasing dangers, how a society handles disasters reveals the struggle to preserve personal and private identity in a space where public and private have become increasingly at odds.


How We Handle Disasters

Since the second half of the 2000s, Korean film protagonists have been fighting tooth and nail to protect their families. Korean thrillers from 2010 such as Midnight F.M., Man of Vendetta, and No Mercy, seems telling of the subconscious anxiety surrounding Korea. The radio host of Midnight F.M., the pastor of Man of Vendetta, and the medical examiner specializing in autopsies—all characters who have appeared dedicated to their jobs in the public arena—become roped into the antagonists’ game (which all involves a daughter held hostage) and watch as their work ethic falls apart. Ensnared by a game they cannot quit, all characters fail to hold onto their public (work) identity. The pastor becomes corrupt, the radio host loses faith in broadcasting, and the defenders of the law find themselves out of legal bounds. Their only identity that remains, the last identity they struggle to defend, is a private one—as a mother or father. In these films, it appears that the destruction of a public identity and the defense of a private identity are two sides of the same coin.

Man of Vendetta (2010);  Midnight F.M. (2010)

What Monsters Live By

Korean films in the second half of 2000 no longer obsess over the meta-narrative. The loss of faith in the meta-narrative has led to an increasing focus on once marginalized micro-narratives. One trend in the Korean thrillers of 2010 is the reluctance of Korean films to search for meaning and the value of life in the public arena, a trend that perhaps stems from a widespread doubt that public or national development leads to a better quality of life. The public arena in these films is no longer a space of self-realization or a protective system that guarantees the private space. What, then, is the monster that triggers the narrative of disaster and turns the private space into pandemonium? What gave birth to this monster? Why is Korean film opting to focus on the private rather than turning to the public in trying to battle this monster?

To answer this question and understand the anxiety that the Korean masses feel, we must examine Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006). The film opens with an American general ordering his subordinate to release a great quantity of formaldehyde into the Han River. The toxic waste creates the mutant monster. The monster appears on the riverside park and kidnaps Hyeonseo (played by Ko A-sung), the daughter of a man named Park Kang-du (played by Song Kang-ho) who owns a small mom-and-pop store in the park. While quarantined in the hospital for being a suspected carrier of a virus supposedly spread by the monster, Park Kang-du discovers that his daughter is still alive and held hostage in a sewer along the Han River. Park Kang-du and his family escape from the hospital to save Hyeonseo, but no one is willing to help them. Thus, they fight a hard, lonely fight against the monster.

At first glance, it appears the monster was created by the toxic waste that the U.S. army released into the river. But is that really the case? The peril Park Kang-du’s family found themselves in was not simply brought on by the unequal cultural, political, and military relationship between Korea and the U.S. The Host masterfully depicts how the multi-layered ironies inherent in the structure of Korean society winds up throwing the average family to the wolves. There is a very important scene in the film before the monster is introduced. A middle-aged man tries to commit suicide by throwing himself into the Han River when his friends run over to save him. The man who was about to jump sees something in the river and asks his friends if they see it, too. But his friends do not see what he does. The man throws himself into the river with these last words directed at his friends, “Dim-witted morons all the way to the end!” The Host provides no other background on this man. He is likely some failed middle-aged man who has lost the ability to take care of his family. In a society that allows no second chances, his one remaining option is to throw himself in the river. And only then does he see the monster with its mouth gaping open, ready to swallow him whole. Although it was created by toxic waste courtesy of the U.S. army, it grew by feeding on the stragglers of K...