Headphones on. DVD player loaded. Blank page open. That’s right, folks. It’s another edition of Commentary Commentary, our weekly look at a film’s commentary track and all the amazing anecdotes and discernment that come with it. This week we’re going international for the first time here in Commentary Commentary. We’re headed all the way to South Korea and all the way back to 2006. Not exactly sure which of those two settings are further away, but we have them right here on this pressed, metal disc.
This week we’re listening to Bong Joon-ho‘s commentary on his monster movie, The Host. Does he end up revealing in it how much he hates everything America stands for? Spoiler alert: he doesn’t, but I’m sure this article isn’t going to help matters. So take a look at what I learned. I suddenly have a craving for Kimchi and Soju.
THE HOST (2006)
Commentators: Bong Joon-ho (director, screenwriter), Tony Rayns (long-time friend of the director), the soothing sounds of a giant fish with legs vomiting up the bones of dozens of victims (I no longer want Kimchi)
- The opening scene was inspired by a true event. In 2000, a mortician in Seoul under the employment of the US Air Force ordered his workers to dump embalming fluid down the drain. All in all, 120 liters were washed into the Han River raising the toxicity level. When Bong saw this case, he felt it would make a suitable beginning to his monster story. Details in the opening scene, the mortician being obsessed with dust on the bottles to be precise, were based on the actual case.
- Bong remembered Scott Wilson from 1984’s A Year of the Quiet Sun and 2003’s Monster. Though the actor had a small role in those films, the director felt the actor had a dignity that was needed for the role of the US doctor.
- A little South Korean geography, the Han River runs right through the middle of Seoul, and it is very broad. Many residents of the city have to cross the river several times a day. Bong also mentions there are suicides involving people jumping into the Han River every day.
- Bong Joon-ho felt that in many monster movies, it’s always the scientist or the muscle-bound hero who saves the day. He wanted the heroes of his film to be everyday people, namely a dysfunctional family. He took the same approach with his previous film, 2003’s Memories of Murder, in which the police investigating the serial killer case were “stupid.” Rayns mentions this is common in Bong Joon-ho’s films, the idea of a lower to middle class character who is on a downward track. The director mentions with these characters he can bring out the humanity in them, whereas the typical superhero types don’t bring out much real drama.
- Bong is always on the lookout for new actors and actresses to work with. However, due to the visual work and special effects on in The Host, he decided to work with actors he had previously worked with. This allowed him to put all his focus and stress level to the visual look of the film.
- The blond hair with black roots showing through on Song Kang-ho was a deliberate choice to make the character appear lazy and not very bright.
- Bong Joon-ho refers to actor Byeon Hie-bong as his “father in the industry.”
- Rayns mentions the tradition of withholding the monster in typical monster movies and the fact that Bong completely breaks this tradition. Bong Joon-ho mentions how much he hates this tradition and jumped at the chance to show his creature fully and early. This also got that aspect of the film out of the way so the audience could focus on the impact the creature has on the family.
- Rayns recollects visiting Bong’s production offices and seeing dozens of potential creature designs hanging on the wall. The director mentions the tail and the mouth as the most important part of the creature design. He and his creature designer wanted the monster here to be different from those typically found in Western cinema. Most notably, he didn’t want his creature to look like a dragon. Pictures of mutated and exotic fish were used to ultimately create the look of the monster in The Host. Bong Joon-ho also wanted a creature whose look worked in harmony with that of actor Song Kang-ho.
- There was pressure on Bong Joon-ho to include less full-on shots of the creature’s face and more in profile, as these would be cheaper to do. Likewise, due to the film’s budget, several planned shots of the creature had to be reordered or scrapped altogether. Around 180 creature shots were planned at the storyboard level, but the director had to reduce it to around 120.
- “Once he was a student activist, but now he’s a loser.” – Bong Joon-ho on the character Nam-il played by Park Hae-il. Rayns also mentions the bottle Nam-il is carrying when he enters the funeral hall is a bottle of Soju, a Korean form of vodka made from sweet potatoes. The Soju bottle is also a foreshadowing to Nam-il carrying the Molotov cocktails at the end of the film.
- The idea of a viral outbreak was one more dissimilarity between Bong Joon-ho’s film and typical monster movies. His first idea when writing the script was mainly to focus on the family element. He wanted to include the predicament of the family being hunted by the government that was also searching for the monster. “The family doesn’t want to fight with the monster. They have no interest in the monster. Their only interest is focused on their own daughter,” says Bong Joon-ho who sees this movie as sort of a kidnapping movie.
- The idea of the monster being able to swing from its tail and its agility was inspired by the location alone. Bong Joon-ho knew that based on the surroundings, the monster would have to be able to move like it does in order to move around underneath the bridge.
- The concept of bribing in South Korea is generational. Bong Joon-ho mentions it is typical for someone of Byeon Hie-bong’s generation to try and bribe someone. “Did you have to bribe anyone to make this film?” asks Rayns. “My producer,” responds Bong Joon-ho.
- “The mobile phone changed our script writing,” Bong Joon-ho remarking on how the device plays such an important part in modern film and real life alike.
- Regarding the story on the news in the film about the nurse wanting to sue Gang-Du for injuries she sustained during the family’s escape from the hospital, Bong Joon-ho remarks how this is a “social joke.” He also mentions many jokes and much of the humor in the film comes about naturally or automatically while he writes the screenplay as opposed to them being deliberately included.
- Most of the underground settings in The Host are real locations found underneath the Wonhyo Bridge. The only set built for these underground locations was the creature’s shelter.
- Money and eating are two important motifs Bong Joon-ho points out in The Host. Throw in a crazy big monster, and what else do you really need?
- Bong Joon-ho mentions his 2004 short film Sink and Rise as a short test for The Host. Similar locations and actors are used.
- The idea of Seori comes up. Bong Joon-ho notes it is nearly impossible to translate to Western society. It is a looter culture in Korea of young kids stealing food, typically melons of some kind, not as a criminal act but as a mischievous act. If the children were caught, they would not be arrested or turned into the authorities but scolded for their actions. Bong Joon-ho included this phrase in the film to create something of a connection between Gang-Du and the two boys, as if he sees something of himself in them. This is important at the end of the film when Gang-Du goes to the younger brother after the creature has been killed.
- Bong Joon-ho felt it important to give the entire family, daughter included, one last moment together. Hence the inclusion of the ghost image during the scene with them eating in the shack.
- Five companies were involved to execute the creature.
- Byeon Hie Bong’s character of the grandfather allowing the creature to trample him is Bong Joon-ho’s way of the character accepting that he did everything he could to save his family. It is a weight he passes on to his children now that he has allowed himself to be killed.
- The director decided to incorporate footage from the Iraq War in the film’s news footage for two reasons. First it allowed the story to progress, but it also gave Bong Joon-ho the ability to include political satire. Just as there is no virus, it’s all a rumor, there were no weapons of mass destruction.
- The sequence involving Nam-il trying to get information from his former activist friend incorporates many stylistic choices. He and his friend meet in a dark alley indicating the opposition the had to stay underground. Likewise, when the two are talking in the elevator, Bong Joon-ho cuts between them until the concept of money is brought up. Here, he pans between the two, an indication of the friend’s forthcoming betrayal over money.
- Rayns mentions the parallel between the way Gang-Du is treated in the hospital and how the public treats the creature. The creature is as much a victim as Gang-Du, it wasn’t born evil. Bong also mentions the moment with Gang-Du in the hospital as a turning point for the character, as the brain surgery the character goes through changes everything about him.
- Rayns brings up Bong’s artistic personality in using black comedy as previously seen in Barking Dogs Never Bite and Memories of Murder as well as in The Host. Bong Joon-ho notes without the black comedy element he can’t do anything. “That kind of element helps the art emotions like sadness and suspense and tension, because there will be a contrast from the humor,” replies the director.
- Bong Joon-ho brings up some of the conventional scares he includes in The Host. In his mindset, it is okay to include so many traditional scares since there is so much out of the ordinary about the creature in his film.
- It isn’t in the context of the film, but according to Bong Joon-ho, the government in The Host believed there to be a virus at first. However they realized there was no virus but had already prepared for it by involving the media and organizing the release of Agent Yellow.
- Bong Joon-ho refers to Lee Dong-ho, the younger of the two orphans, as the “little king” of the set, as everyone on set seemed to act to please him during shooting.
- The design of the pod used to deploy Agent Yellow was specifically designed to resemble the look of the creature when it is first seen hanging upside down under the Wonhyo Bridge.
- There’s a bit of a debate between Rayns and Bong Joon-ho near the end of the film regarding the “innocence” of the creature. When Rayns mentions it’s natural that the creature has to die at the end because it’s “eaten lots of people who were completely innocent by standards.” Bong Joon-ho remarks that the creature just wants to survive. “Well, sometimes you can’t let things survive,” Rayns replies.
- The shot of Song Kang-ho grabbing the shotgun in the film’s coda uses the same framing and composition as the shot of Byeon Hie-bong grabbing the shotgun earlier in the film.
- Though Bong Joon-ho recognizes the satire and political commentary in The Host about America, he doesn’t view it as an overtly anti-American film. Rayms remarks on the social tension between American cinema and Korean cinema. He also goes on to mention The Host as being the highest grossing film in South Korean history, that it was able to “out Hollywood Hollywood.”
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“It’s a painful process, but it’s a very creative process. I can express tension or suspense without the creature on the screen.” – Bong Joon-ho
While there is much to learn from Bong Joon-ho regarding his views and the way he put The Host together, the DVD commentary is not a very enjoyable one. Sadly, much of what we learn comes in the form of broad stroke insight into casting, the film’s narrative about family vs. the American government vs. the monster, and the design and execution of the creature. Tony Rayns brings much out of him with the questions he brings up, but the answers are hindered by Bong Joon-ho’s stilted English. It isn’t the director’s fault, mind you, but it makes for a less than completely interesting listen.
One thing it does do, though. The 12-year-old in me gave off a smirk every time the director says the word “designer.” Yeah, I know. Feel free to shoot off that angry email now.