In an early essay on the implicit relationship between anthropocentrism and violence in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida centers his analysis on the meaning of “monstrosity,” which bears a signifying relation to the French term montre, meaning “to show, to demonstrate, or to warn.” As Derrida points out, the term monster is linked to the sign that typically serves to mark the separation of human beings as a higher form of life from other animal species, so that the lack of this attribute comes to designate the condition of animality itself. Derrida’s paradoxical reading of the word monster suggests the possibility that it is the distinctively human monstrosity of the hand that serves as “a sign that shows” (Ein Zeichen), whereby human beings alone are capable of producing monstrosity. Following this paradoxical logic, Bong Joon-ho’s film, Goemul (2006), titled The Host in most Western markets, echoes Derrida’s theorization of the term monster as a sign that ambiguously evokes a “monstrous we,” a monstrous humanity. The two-syllable word goe (괴)-mul (물) in Korean literally means a “grotesque creature or object” and refers in the film to a dangerous entity that terrorizes human beings in modern Seoul. At the same time, while adding depth to both the semantic and the allegorical meanings of the monster, The Host interrogates the monstrous nature of the sign in ways that resonate with Derrida’s arguments concerning the monstrous nature of the sign. In this essay, the author highlights the ambiguity of the film’s use of the two senses of goemul—humanity and monstrosity—in portraying the current geopolitical dangers that threaten the cosmopolitan inhabitants of Seoul and, in particular, threaten the social cohesion of the family as the most elementary form of kinship and group identity. The significance of the goemul portrayed in Bong’s film may be that this monstrous creature is a “sign that shows, demonstrates, and warns.” It is through the creation of this sign that The Host brings to light the ambivalent and conflicted coexistence of tradition and modernity, family and the state, democracy and militarism, nationalism and imperialism/globalism, and the monstrous and the human in contemporary South Korean society.
Monstrosity and Humanity in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host
Meera Lee received a PhD in English from Dankook University and is currently a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Point Park University. Her research interests include film, cultural ethnography, and psychoanalysis. Her work has appeared in Telos, Verge: Studies in Global Asias, and Tamkang Review, as well as a collected volume Psychoanalyzing Cinema: Lacan, Deleuze, and Zizek (2012). She is coeditor of “Rethinking East Asia and World Literature,” a special issue of Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Literatures. Before coming to Point Park University, she was an assistant professor of Asian/Asian American studies in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics at Syracuse University.