Western acclaim for East Asian actors can often be eclipsed by a love for the directors whose movies they star in. Take Song Kang-ho – the immensely popular South Korean actor who’s starred in 12 of his country’s highest grossing domestic films. Praise is more often directed at the terrific movies he’s in than a celebration of his craft.
Beyond his collaborations with Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho (who seemingly share joint custody of the actor), he’s collaborated with mainstream and arthouse talents like Kim Jee-woon, Hong Sang-soo, Lee Chang-dong, and with his latest award-winning turn in Broker, Hirokazu Kore-eda. His peerless delivery of comedy and pathos gave him another win before Kore-eda’s found family drama, where he first proved his ability to forge and foster an unorthodox family unit united in a compassionate goal – even if The Host had 100% more sea monsters in it.
Bong Joon-ho’s films have often made a game-changing impact in his home industry, with The Host being one of the most seismic. Prior to The Host, few Korean productions had featured CGI effects so extensively, and there would be no trickery to cheat around showing the monster like Spielberg did in Jaws. The Host’s water-dwelling creature is shot in plain, revealing wide shots as soon as it rises from the Han River to wreak carnage on the surrounding bystanders.
It’s here that Gang-du (Song) gets thrust into a crisis: his daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Asung) is snatched by the monster outside their riverside snack shack. Together with his alcoholic brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il), champion archer sister Nam-joo (Bae Doona), and scolding father Hie-bong (Byun Hee-bong), the fractured family must persevere through government quarantines and martial law to save what Gang-du sees as his last hope for a meaningful life.
Before the inciting monster attack, Gang-du lazily slums around the riverbank with a sleepy gait and a downcast expression, fitted with oversized sweatpants and dyed blond hair. Song has always had great presence as a performer, and his talent for showing a character’s status through physicality is never better than here. Gang-du projects not just laziness, but a void of purpose filled exclusively with his devotion to Hyun-seo. A slow-witted slacker who nevertheless cares for his daughter isn’t exactly new ground for a character, but Song brings the archetype to new heights of pitiable feebleness.
Regardless of how much Gang-du cares about her, Hyun-seo has grown tired of her father’s poor parenting efforts, and within minutes of observing their dynamic, it’s clear how trapped Gang-du is by his own paternal limitations. He rushes out to greet Hyun-seo at the riverbank, scurrying around her with a puppy-like keenness, appearing more like a doting child than a reliable father. He’s saving up to buy her a phone with only a recycled food pot filled with loose change. It’s sweet, but a little pathetic.
Gang-du is keenly aware that his shortcomings stop him from meaningfully bettering his loved ones’ lives – and when faced with the possibility of losing his daughter, this inadequacy becomes intolerable. The flattened shock painted across his face when his daughter is snatched away by the monster perfectly illustrates how his ambitions have outreached his abilities.
After the attack, Gang-du’s grief is smothered by plastic – government officials quarantine him for coming into contact with the monster, who they claim is the host of a dangerous, undocumented virus. Song’s face stares out from the see-through screen of a quarantine body bag, practically bleeding with anguish, and at the hospital he’s sequestered by doctors and officials needing to isolate and test him. Song’s lumbering frame lends itself so well to disorientation; there’s a sense of being untethered in all his slouching and swaying.
Song’s greatest moment, potentially in his whole career, comes when Gang-du receives a phone call from the sewer Hyun-seo is trapped in. He becomes gripped by an urgent need to reach her; it’s not a bold, squeaky-clean heroism, but an infectious, messy panic. He struggles to convince a police officer that his daughter is out there alive, a communication hindrance compounded by the fact that Gang-du is still in quarantine, and a thick, translucent sheet separates him from the rest of the characters.
His head dips, he paws at the material, his words are consumed by gasps – all while the rest of his family talk over him and antagonise the officer they need help from. The sheet adds a physical barrier for Song to push up against, reminding him of his weakness with every touch. Ultimately, he uses props to explain how Hyun-seo is still alive, and the simple motions of putting a phone in his mouth and dropping it in a bucket are filled with a desperate conviction that Song sells so earnestly.
The family escape the hospital and make it to the infected zone, where Gang-du has little character-revealing grace notes. He jogs behind their illegally obtained fumigation truck in an effort to disinfect himself (an act of purification?) for when he’s reunited with Hyun-seo, and wakes from one of his many naps with a sudden alertness when he clocks the monster outside – as if he’s fused with his enemy Ahab-Moby Dick-style. When Hee-bong is killed by the monster, Gang-du ends up a prisoner of the American-Korean military. He’s back in captivity, but now fuelled with a burning passion and determination – to the point where anaesthetics have no effect on his energy.
As Gang-du is subjected to a lobotomy (the virus, it turns out, doesn’t exist), Bong’s camera observes him fastened to the operating table from above, lingering on the character’s babbling pleas for help as the debilitating surgery is prepped around him. Here, we see the other end of Song’s acting spectrum; instead of giving mute, slack-jawed reactions, he’s filled with a furious distress that cannot be subdued even by the threat of sharp medical instruments. It’s not just moving – despite its upsetting nature there’s still something humorous about Song’s bellowing performance, as if there are no traumatic low points in Bong Joon-ho’s films that can’t be injected with a dark, amusing dynamism.
Escaping from the medical facility sets Gang-du on a collision course with the monster – and he’s the one to deliver the final blow by impaling the creature with a pole (a mirror to the heavy road sign he clumsily wielded during the first attack). His feet skid across the ground – will they hold? – but they stick, resolute, his weapon digging deep into the monster’s head. For once, when he really needed it, his ability matched his determination. Hyun-seo, tragically, died in the creature’s stomach while she protectively held onto another of its victims, a young orphaned boy.
In the final scene, Gang-du lives quietly in the snack bar with his new surrogate son, and we reflect that heroism in The Host isn’t just a process of self-actualisation, but a connective bond shared with others – both Gang-du and his new surrogate son are only alive because multiple people suffered to save them.
Song shows Gang-du’s new-found humility as capably as he did his laziness, his disorientation, and his burning heroics. He spent so long considering what he would sacrifice to protect the person he loves most, without considering she’d be willing to sacrifice more herself. What’s more humbling than that?
Published 24 Feb 2023
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