I love The Host. A fantastically fun monster and a sometimes nuanced, sometimes heavy-handed social commentary take a backseat to a very human kidnapping narrative with a very human family. Director Bong Joon-ho clearly has a lot to say on the geopolitics affecting modern day Korea, a picture he deftly paints by focusing strongly on the effects of this mess on one small family. For more on that, this detailed analysis of geopolitics in The Host is a bang up read. The most interesting part of the film to me, however, is something a little less serious: protagonist Park Gang-Doo’s terrible incompetence in the face of overwhelmingly useless or actively malicious government agencies.
Incompetence is one of the more common recurring themes in the film. On a larger and more obvious scale, we see the U.S. and South Korean government not only incapable of dealing with the creature, but seemingly not even interested in doing so.
From the very beginning, Park Gang-Doo is revealed as entirely incompetent. He sleeps through the store nearly being robbed, trips the first time he tries to move anywhere, and absentmindedly hands his young daughter a beer while watching tv. His father is later revealed to have formerly been a drunk who neglected his eldest son. His brother is a former college protester who is now himself an unemployed drunk. And his sister, in what seems like the film’s hardest nod at feminism other than the creature’s maternal imagery, is comically lumped in with the failures of her family because she is only a bronze medalist archer in a national competition. Tellingly, her buying into this narrative makes her as ineffective as the rest of her family. The only person in the film who seems able to take care of even herself is Gang-Doo’s daughter Hyun-seo, the person everyone is trying and failing to save.
It is, at first, easy to blame Gang-Doo for everything that happens to him. His daughter is captured because he grabs the wrong hand. His family is quarantined because he volunteers information to a clearly incompetent government [to illustrate this, the government man also trips as he first enters the scene, which is what even makes people notice him]. His father dies because Gang-Doo gives him an empty gun, and Gang-Doo gets recaptured when he doesn’t run away after. He is dangling uselessly on a rope he didn’t need to climb down when the creature escapes its lair with his daughter in its mouth.
Ultimately, though, Gang-Doo is a victim of circumstances out of his control. He did not create the monster, fabricate a made-up virus, uselessly detain people instead of trying to find and kill the monster, or run a statewide manhunt to defer blame on a single, innocent family. He is as brave as anyone can be expected to be, as one of only two people who attempt to combat the creature in the first scene, and as someone constantly fighting for the return of his daughter. But he is not the fictionalized hero of most monster films who through brains or brawn can wrap everything up in a tidy package. And, really because he is only human, his daughter dies in the end, most likely not even due to the monster, but due to the Agent Yellow poured into a crowded square by a clueless government.
The final scene is often seen as a turnaround for our protagonist: Gang-Doo and his new, young adoptee eating the first home-cooked meal in the film,. He has rid himself of his terrible haircut, is wearing more than sweatpants, seems vigilant against further threats, has taken over the food store, cooked a proper meal, and turns off the television [with his foot] to pay attention to his new child. But, given the film’s constant reaffirmation of the troubles caused by things greater than a monster—including the creature itself—Gang-Doo’s vigilance seems rather small. In the end, maybe it is all we can do, but I think the final shot of the film, a widening view of Gang-Doo’s food shop surrounded by nothing but snow and darkness, shows how lonely and incomplete personal responsibility is as a solution.