On the surface, Stephenie Meyer’s The Host (directed by Andrew Niccol) and Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho’s The Host having nothing in common. But that’s just because you didn’t look deep enough!
Sure, Meyer’s film is a YA extravaganza featuring a love square among a girl whose body has been possessed by an alien soul, the girl herself who still exists inside the darkest recesses of her own brain via incredibly annoying voiceover, and the two perfectly coifed, absolutely indistinguishable CW-ready hunks both girls have fallen in love with. Bong Joon-ho’s The Host is a blistering environmentalist parable working within classic monster movie conventions: a schoolgirl is abducted by a freaky river monster that was only created because of toxic waste dumping. As a Korean film, it faced the usual stateside hurdle of snagging a large audience when you have subtitles. Meyer’s film, however, was expected to be a decently-performing blockbuster with franchise potential. And yet her Host bombed with an $11 million opening weekend bow, far below expectations, while Bong’s film, though making far less with only $2.2 million for its lifetime gross, exceeded expectations for a foreign-made monster movie. It also walked away with a much higher per-theater average than Meyer’s film, due to how it only ever played on 116 screens to the Meyer film’s 3,200.
Then there’s the whole matter of critical reception: The new Host received laughably bad reviews (12% on Rotten Tomatoes), while its Korean predecessor is pretty much the definition of an arthouse smash (93% on Rotten Tomatoes). And yet, even after all these signs telling me otherwise, I maintain that these two films have more in common than you’d expect. Here are six points of similarity between them.
1. They’re Both About a Girl Who May Still Be Alive Against All Odds
The Korean film presents an updated version of the Fay Wray-King Kong scenario: a beast has abducted a girl (Go Ah-sung) and taken her to his lair to await possible devouring. Meyer’s film, on the surface anyway, appears a bit more audacious, with alien soul Wanderer having taken over the body of the human resistance fighter Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan).
In both cases the survivors doubt that the girl is alive and give in to intense despair. Meyer’s film devotes most of its runtime to the human refugees slowly discovering that Melanie is still alive and aware inside her body, despite the alien Soul that does most of her walking and talking. When the resistance fighters first discover her, though, they treat her like a zombie, a member of the walking dead that needs to be put down. Her aunt slugs her. So does her old boyfriend. And one member of the party offers to behead her with a machete. Of course, she’s quickly spared, and that level of brutality never surfaces again in the rest of the film. Bong’s The Host uses the disappearance of young Hyun-seo as the impetus for a hilarious critique of overblown public displays of grief. Hyun-seo’s family gets drunk, scream before a shrine of the girl, and end up rolling on the floor wailing. However, a timely cell phone call from Hyun-seo, deep in the bowels of the creature’s sewer cave make her family realize she’s still alive.
2. Both Movies Are Also About a Failure to Communicate.
Melanie can’t get through to the people she cares about. Hyun-seo’s family can’t convince the authorities that she’s still alive. The funniest scene in Bong’s film is when Hyun-seo’s father tries to tell the authorities that his daughter may not have been eaten by the monster, as they seemed to witness, but may have been gently picked up inside the monster’s mouth and carried like a doll to somewhere else. Dad gently picks up a cell phone with his mouth, then deposits it like a bone in a bucket to convey the idea. He’s exactly right that that’s what happened, but because he did such a poor job of conveying the idea, everybody thinks he’s totally crazy.
3. They’re Both About How Family Sticks Together
Though it takes awhile, Melanie’s boyfriend (Max Irons), uncle (William Hurt), and aunt (Frances Fisher, denied more than a line in the film) come to believe she’s still alive. They’re willing to take up arms and defend her from the white pant-suited Souls who want to abduct her…and the skeptical humans in their midst who still want to kill her. Hyun-seo’s father, Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), a feckless twit who’s never aspired to more than the family’s fried-squid stand, has to man up and search for his daughter. He follows a traditional horror-movie arc of a character who starts out listless and lost, like the pot-smoking parents in Poltergeist, and becomes empowered and competent in order to save the day. Gang-du, his father, his white-collar brother, and his champion archer sister—yep, I’d be willing to say our current fascination with archery really stems back to The Host—pool their skills like an awesomely schlubby posse to defeat the beast and rescue Hyun-seo. They’re certainly not going to get any help from the authorities.
4. Both Are Critical of Big Government
Meyer’s film is the ideal red state sci-fi epic: you find renewal and rejuvenation in rural America and escape from the dead-eyed alien hordes that quickly assumed the apparatus of the federal government and are using its resources to track down anyone who opposes them. The survivors’ only defense comes in the form of the firearms they carry at all times. They had them before the invasion to protect themselves from tyranny, and now the worst case scenario they feared (or maybe longed for) has arrived and all that can protect them from city-dwellers-turned-alien-invaders is their .38-caliber fury.
In Bong’s The Host, the South Korean government is shown to be clogged with bureaucracy and ineptitude: one disaster-relief official refuses to tell the survivors anything that happened about the monster attack and has them listen to the news on TV instead. The government is shown to be overly deferential to the U.S. military, which has bases in South Korea, and believes the U.S. officials’ claims that the monster is a host for a deadly virus, even though there’s no evidence to suggest that is the case. Bong’s film can also be read as a critique of American neo-imperialism, that the U.S.’s projection of power throughout the world can have unintended consequences. The inciting event that creates the monster, a Korean lab tech being forced to pour gallons of formaldehyde in the Han River, is based on a real-life toxic waste-dumping situation from 2000 involving the U.S. authorities. So both films are critical of American governmental power, even if Bong’s film is approaching that critique from the left and Meyer’s film from the right.
5. Both Feature Invasive Medical Procedures
The moment that’s supposed to be all shocking in Meyer’s film, but really isn’t, is when we see that the human resistance have been experimenting on the bodies of humans possessed by Souls. They’ve been trying to find a way to surgically remove the Souls from their hosts. Wanderer, now named Wanda, is appalled, because it kills both the human and the Soul. She begins to doubt her place within the group.
Hyun-seo’s father, Gang-du, is captured by the South Korean government and their U.S. allies, who’ve manufactured the idea that he’s carrying a deadly virus to keep him away from the monster that’s taken his daughter. Of course, there is no threat, and when Gang-du, after being subjected to cranial drilling, finally escapes, he discovers the U.S. forces barbecuing outside, totally unconcerned about the virus…because there is none.
6. Both Involve Stealing
Wanda/Melanie go to a Soul supermarket, take their supplies, and walk right out without paying. Apparently, that’s the norm. There is no exchange of money in the Soul economy, which has to be some kind of critique of socialism. Melanie reveals her own history of shoplifting, however, when she says, “I’ve walked out of a store without paying plenty of times! No one was ever happy about it before, though.” Since Melanie grew up as a poor rural kid, the implication is that we’re supposed to forgive her her illegal method for providing for herself and admire her pluck for doing so. That’s similar to the concept of seo-ri in the Korean Host, which is that people in need can feel morally secure in taking from others without their permission if they are in dire straights and intend to replace what they stole at a later time.
7. Both Display a Remarkable Affinity for Hair Product
The distinguishing feature of both Jared and Ian, Melanie and Wanda’s paramours, is that they have perfectly styled locks as the result of the strategic application of gel. Bong’s film also emphasizes hair: Hyun-seo’s father Gang-du has bleached his hair blonde. But that bleaching is emblematic of his fecklessness and irresponsibility, two qualities he sheds because of his efforts to rescue his daughter. By the film’s end—after a few months have passed, just like in Meyer’s film—we see he no longer goes in for the highlighting. Jared and Ian in Meyer’s film will never abandon their use of styling product, however.
So how can two movies with quite a bit in common be so radically different? Because it’s all in the execution.
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credit: Open Roads Films; Magnolia Pictures]