A Soul in Response: Bong Joon-ho’s Okja

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A Soul in Response: Bong Joon-ho’s Okja

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho is one of the world’s more daring modern filmmakers. Though not his debut, 2003’s Memories of Murder was the film that announced Bong to the cinephile world, and it remains one of the most poignant crime procedurals in the film canon. After the international success of monster movie masterpiece The Host in 2006, Bong went smaller scale for 2009’s Mother before making the internationally produced and cast sci-fi epic Snowpiercer four years later. His has been an interesting career arc—in a way it’s almost fitting that Bong’s most lavish movie yet would be, in a sense, direct-to-video. Netflix has enabled the writer and director to deliver a movie that a few years ago would have seemed impossible: a $50 million flick about a Korean girl and her super-pig, the titular Okja, which functions as satire, adventure, take-down of the food industry, and more. It is, appropriately, more than the sum of its parts.

Okja takes more creative risks in its first five minutes than most films take over their entire span, and it doesn’t let up from there. What appears to be a sticking point for some critics and audiences, particularly Western ones, is the seemingly erratic tone, from sentiment to suspense to giddy action to whimsy to horror to whatever it is Jake Gyllenhaal is doing. But this is part and parcel with what makes Bong Joon-ho movies, well, Bong Joon-ho movies: They’re nuanced and complex, but they aren’t exactly subtle or restrained. They have attention to detail, but they are not delicate in their handling. They have multiple intentions, and they bring those intentions together to jam. They are imaginative works that craft momentum through part-counterpart alternations, and Okja is perhaps the finest example yet of the wild pendulum swing of a Bong film’s rhythmic tonality.

It is an approach that varies in degree and execution in his oeuvre. In Memories of Murder and Mother, the tonal audacity comes both through how Bong incorporates a sort of wry humor into dark subject matter and through his colorful rendition of characters. In one scene in Memories of Murder, a detective (Song Kang-ho) and his stooge are shown abusing a mentally disabled man. A few minutes later into the film they are eating with the same man and watching TV, mouthing the show’s theme music…then back to interrogation. The film opens with the discovery of the first murder, a naked female corpse swarming with ants, while on the ground above the detective grows annoyed with a young boy’s mimicry. The tragic and the comic, the macabre and the mundane, all twisted up in the same fabric of time and place.

There’s perhaps no more potent example of this synergy between conflicting appeals than when the obsessive mother of Mother (Kim Hye-ja) harasses her simpleton son (Won Bin) to finish his meal then dotes by feeding him the broth from the bowl as he urinates against a street wall. The urine slowly runs out and curls down the pavement while the mother simply keeps tilting the bowl down her son’s throat. Sweet, sad and crass, it’s an honest assessment of both the poetry and the absurdity in human behavior, and how inextricable the movements of that behavior are from carnal demands and biological hardwiring. Together, Memories of Murder and Mother form an impactful double-header of farcical tragedy, and their influence is quite evident in the current wave of Korean cinema, most notably in Hong-jin Na’s The Wailing from last year.

In Bong’s larger scale sci-fi pieces, the tonal swing is wider-arcing and more pronounced in its demarcations. Here the very strictures of genre and mood-building are unwound; Bong plays it, as the saying goes, fast and loose. In comparison to the careful calculations with which Hollywood approaches these same types of movies—the formulaic hows and whens of drama, awe, action, sap and jokes—Bong’s films roll like Coltrane jazz covers of pop songs. Or, in the case of Snowpiercer, like long-form electronica, completely different aesthetic and conceptual phases strung together like train cars (post-apocalyptic grunge, mad scientist horror, neon rave, false utopia, Zhang Yimou flick, Orwellian societal paradigm reveal, Ed Harris) over a propulsive clickety-clack track.

The Host is perhaps the most direct precedent in Bong’s work for what he perfects in Okja. It’s a monster movie that hangs its genre tropes upon keen, humorous observations of familial dynamics and the thin, perhaps nonexistent line between human weakness and courage. In one moment we see Kang-ho Song’s unlikely protagonist Park Gang-du hoist up a cement-anchored post to attack the monster, the camera tracking the heavy end of the post bobbing up and down with something like a Buster Keaton-esque wink, to Park Gang-du immediately turning heel and running away in abject fear. This blends seamlessly into a quietly horrific sequence where the monster takes Gang-du’s young daughter (Go Ah-sung), which then gives way to a wake scene where characters literally tackle each other in grief, drama pushed beyond the point of hysterics, Bong’s camera watching bemusedly from above as these people writhe on the ground. You can’t predict these beats—not in their timing, not in their very substance. And so the film grips you.

Okja takes this swing to the next level. It is the culmination of Bong’s unique rhythms into something like a syncopated symphony. The film opens with Tilda Swinton’s corporate maven Lucy Mirando leering out an expository dump of public relations about her new genetically created super-pigs, which will revolutionize the food industry. We’re also introduced to Johnny Wilcox, played by Jake Gyllenhaal as a bundle of wretched tics, like there’s a tightly-wound anime character just waiting to rid itself of its Gyllenhaal flesh, but in the meantime barely contained. The sequence is all artifice and all extremely off-putting, as it is supposed to be, before cutting to the title card, a serene shot of mountains held for what seems like a blessed eternity.

Okja is the finest of the super-pigs, raised by a Korean farmer (Byun Hee-bong) and his granddaughter Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), an orphan. Okja is Mija’s best friend, a crucial part of her family. Bong takes his sweet time with this idyllic life Mija and Okja share. The narrative slows down to observe what feels like a Miyazaki fantasy come to life. Mija whispers in Okja’s ear, and we’re left to wonder what she could possibly be saying.

The grandfather has been lying to Mija, telling her he has saved money to buy Okja from the Mirando corporation. There is no buying this pig; it is to be a promotional star for the enterprise. When Johnny Wilcox comes to claim Okja (a sharp note of dissonance in the peaceful surroundings) the grandfather makes up an excuse for Mija to come with him to her parents’ grave. It is there he tells her the truth. The money he saved, he used to buy her a golden pig statue, a consolation. Mija runs back home to find Okja gone—a tragic moment in the film and a betrayal, but also the start of the film’s forward movement. It signifies the exaggerated ways in which Bong’s films show his view of the world, of cause and effect, and how we are never in a place to justify our actions, but sometimes those actions justify themselves.

Mija’s quest to rescue Okja brings her in alliance with non-violent animal rights activists ALF, which ushers the film into a high-wire act of an adventure where Bong’s penchant for artful set-piece is pushed to new heights. The director works with an ace crew frontlined by one of our greatest living cinematographers, Darius Khondji, who composes every frame of Okja with vibrant virtuosity. Yet even as this technical mastery and genre-based entertainment defines the film’s middle portion, we again see Bong Joon-ho’s legion of artistic proclivities create tangents and detours that end up being essential parts of the thematic journey. What seems like a sidebar in “translation is sacred” becomes a key point on how good intentions are poisoned by guile. The very action of the film becomes action that is concerned with its own ethics. As the caricatures of certain characters loom larger, and the scope of the film stretches more and more into the borderline surreal, one realizes that the Okja is a modern, moral fable.

There’s a brutal, haunting scene towards the end of the film that takes place in a super-pig food factory, a monstrosity of a locale given the gravitas of a concentration camp. You want to see this place overthrown, all the super-pigs freed. This does not happen. But Mija has recognized a change in the bottom line of the forces she contends with, and the gold pig statue, which she offers as a bribe to fulfill some sort of hopeful result, becomes a means to a worthwhile end. Sometimes an action justifies itself. Bong Joon-Ho here creates a fantasy, but lets the grim realities of corporate indifference and human greed creep into that fantasy to a level that recalls what his approach has been all these years, then elevates it. Okja is not a film about veganism (Mija eats chicken and fish innocently enough), but it is a film that asks how we can find integrity and, above all, how we can act humanely towards other creatures, humans included. The answers Okja reaches are simple and vital, and without really speaking them it helps you hear those answers for yourself because it has asked all the right questions, and it has asked them in a way that is intensely engaging.

In Okja, what comes to light is a theme that has determined all of Bong Joon-ho’s films to date, but never so apparent and beatifically as now. At the end of it all, Okja whispers something in Mija’s ear. We do not know what; we do not need to know. All we need to know is that it happens. And so, Okja shows, perhaps the soul of anything is, simply, a response. To that which nurtured it or hurt it, surrounds it or confronts it. Thus, Bong’s films give powerful cues for every part of our souls to respond to. Our souls are the richer for it.

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