Popular Culture Feeds on Disaster

  • onNovember 1, 2014
  • Vol.13 Autumn 2011
  • byAn Shihwan

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 Korean society whose despair sent them into the watery grave. The monster hopes for a constant supply of stragglers. That is how the monster grows. We must note that when the man calls his friends “Dim-witted morons all the way to the end!” he is looking nearly straight into the camera. This is a warning from Bong Joon-ho to the audience; the friends (and audience) that cannot see the monster lurking before their eyes will someday find themselves in the same place as the man about to jump.

The narrative of disaster that befalls the average family when the monster appears seems like an allegory of the anxiety shared by the Korean masses. In the tradition of monster movies, The Host depicts the monster as symbolic of how Korean society has turned into a monster by accepting neo-liberalism as an economic and political mandate, how this monster has grown, and how this monster inflicts disaster on the average family. The monster embodies greed. The monster devours everything it can. Its avarice is demonstrated in the scene where it eats too much, becomes sick, and empties its stomach. The monster’s greedy nature that represents Korean society is closely related to the social calamities faced by the average family. The monster is, in other words, the irony of the neoliberal societal structure where wealth begets more wealth and poverty begets more poverty.

The Host is a film about an average family that struggles to defend its private space. The family is treated as an entity that exists, but does not quite. It appears that this family’s suffering remains a story untold to the end. Park Kang-du’s opinions are treated as the gibberish of a madman that has contracted a virus, and because of that, everyone–the doctors, the police, the military, and virus specialists—all cut him off in the middle of his sentences. No one in the film is willing to listen, so his story remains untold. The Host continues to show us how the story is depicted in the news to emphasize the blatant disparity between what the world hears through the news and what the family actually faces.


The Host (2006)

While You Were Sleeping

While the crux of the The Host is the family, there is only one scene in the film where all the family members are gathered together. When the family returns to their mom-and-pop store in the riverside park after escaping from the hospital, they sit around the crowded room to share a meal of ramen. Hyeonseo is not in the scene in the beginning, but it turns out she was lying down for a nap. She wakes up and eats with them. This scene, however, is imaginary because Hyeonseo is held captive by the monster at that point in the film. The fact that the one scene that has all the family members in it is imaginary has important implications, especially for a film about life-and-death struggles to protect the said family. In a world swept up by the winds of neo-liberalism, the only thing we dream of is the family. The family is our only wish.

Park Kang-du, who was asleep when he first appeared in the film, cannot fall asleep at the end of the movie. This suggests that perhaps he believes he has lost Hyeonseo to the monster because he was asleep. An eerie feeling still hangs over the riverside park on Han River at the end of the movie. Even though the monster is dead, the feeling that something else might strike again remains. Perhaps this is why Park Kang-du cannot fall asleep. But physically falling asleep and being intellectually alert cannot be the same thing. Park Kang-du is awake, but one cannot say that he is alert. He remains certain that his private space needs to be protected, but chooses to remain in the dark as to the truth behind the monster that threatened his happiness. He has seen the monster in person and experienced its horrifying power, but he chooses to stay within his house, the private space, to protect his family rather than venturing out into the public space to find it. The monster is not the sort that can be defeated by protecting the private space. The films in the second half of the 2000s deal with a variety of disasters that threaten the private space and yet give us no other alternative but to fight and fight again to protect the family. As long as this persists, the monster will return time and again.