Okja

Okja is a provocative rumination on the cruelty of American capitalism, on all the atrocity we’ll tolerate for the sake of a good burger or maybe a new iPhone

Jon Ronson

Title
Okja (2017)
Genre
 Coming-of-Age, Drama, Family, Melodrama
Written by
Directed by
Country of Origin
 South Korea
Running time
120 minutes 

oh! … background

An immediate warning to potential viewers, this film is not targeted towards a young audience, although its story is very important and one that should be shared with your children, but, perhaps geared more towards teens than much younger children. Why? There are more than a few f-bombs in the first half hour, there are lots of exaggerated corporately hypocritical jokes that are really not child-friendly, animal activism and escapism, the upsetting imagery of animal abuse (sometimes extreme) and the realities of the goings on at slaughterhouses and animal husbandry farms. In other words, Okja is a film that is unrepentant and dead set against the harvesting of animals for the meat industry. In fact, you could say this film is anti-meat consuming altogether.

oh! … brief

The CEO of a Monsanto-like corporation has been breeding a mutant superpig, 26 of which are sent to locations around the world. One of the pigs, called Okja, was sent to South Korea in 2007 to be cared for by a rural farmer called Heebong and his granddaughter Mija. Okja and Mija share a close bond and friendship, developed over time.

Ten years later, Okja has the misfortune of winning the Mirando Corporation breed competition and is recalled to the US. However, this is simply a ruse by Lucy Mirando (CEO) and Dr Johnny Wilcox (zoologist). They ‘buy’ Okja back with a solid gold pig statuette.

Devastated to lose Okja, Mija sets out on a journey to free her friend and return her to her home. In the ensuing chaotic journey, she encounters a group of well-meaning but ridiculous Animal Liberation Front (ALF) members.

Using Okja, the ALF members record the harrowing reality of the superpigs. Footage of Mija running the streets of South Korea trying to free Okja forces the Mirando Corporation to change direction and they invite Mija to the US to participate in a celebratory parade featuring Okja, the amazing superpig.

Video footage captured by ALF is screened at the parade showing the horrific treatment of Okja and once again the Mirando Corporation is forced to change plans, this time, destroy Okja at their killing plant (abattoir) near Paramus, New Jersey. Mija once again makes to rescue Okja and is forced to confront the horrors of a slaughterhouse. Mija exchanges the golden pig statuette for Okja’s life and while they make their escape she rescues another superpig piglet.  Mija and Okja return to South Korea with the new piglet.

oh! … talks drama

I have been waiting in eager anticipation for this film. As a lover of animals and someone lives a plant-based lifestyle, this film appealed to me for the almost ‘vegan-manifesto’ that this film was disparagingly reported to be. Grab something to drink, maybe a snack or two, this review is going to be a long one, there’s just so much to discuss for this production, so much so that this will likely be the longest film review I will ever write. The film’s subject matter is near and dear to my heart J

Before I start writing about the writers for this production, I’d like to give you a little background on the two men. I’ll start with Jon Ronson who worked with Bong Joon-ho on the screenplay. Jon Ronson is an established British journalist and author (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Frank). His writing style is often tinged with self-deprecation and reflects his somewhat acerbic mind. Bong Joon-ho has recently written screenplays that often delve into political reference (Snowpiercer which explores social class, wealth and the environment, Haemoo which had significant political commentary and The Host). His writing often mirrors the political climate in South Korea, Okja the latest.

Together, Bong Joon-ho and Jon Ronson created what can only be called a ‘creature feature’, but, one that carries strong messages to the world. It’s a stark look at the human world and their callous exploitation of animals for food, labour, or ornamental purposes.

Using the relationship between an elephantine mutant pig and a young teen, the two writers first crafted a fantastical friendship and camaraderie between Okja and Mija, establishing a strong bond between the two in the first half hour or so of the film. That bond is very important for what follows and allowed the audience to become engaged and invested in their story.

In their own way, Bong Joon-ho and Jon Ronson detail Mija’s coming-of-age as a young girl developing her own moral wisdom. At fourteen she suddenly must face the realities of city life and big business. Finding her moral backbone in her fight for a nonhuman creature’s right to life is an incredibly powerful tale of modern society. The writers explore Mija’s loss of innocence, but also put the value of innocence on the centre stage up against the evil enemy – capitalistic enterprise. Okja is the physical and intellectual property of a multinational organization and she`s destined for crass and cynical commercial exploitation, not to mention slaughter.

Surprisingly, Mija never loses her spirit or her courage, traits that are common among animal welfare advocates and those that stand strong in the fight against factory farming and its routine inhumanities. In a way, Mija, through her journey is bearing witness on behalf of humanity and Okja becomes the face of the product millions eat on the daily.

Bong Joon-ho and Jon Ronson also use the affection between Okja and Mija to highlight that animals, whether they are the ones in the wild or the ones we eat, or the ones we may someday genetically modify, are all thinking, feeling, and sentient beings. That’s a pretty powerful and strong statement or protest, if you like, against the genetic engineering of animals, factory farming and the meat industry as a whole.

The screenplay also addresses artificial insemination and genetic modification in a round-about way when the forced violent mating of Okja is allowed – the brutality and horror of which Bong Joon-ho masterfully captured in the camera!

The screenplay is even taken further with food inspection and tasting – every possible detail imaginable in the process from birth to death of a factory-farmed animal is exposed – insemination, birth, separating calves from the mothers at birth, raised in small areas in large numbers with no addressing of health and welfare, electrically prodded to acquiesce to travelling, or entering a ramp to a slaughterhouse, bolt guns used to ‘humanely’ kill – sometimes that doesn’t work, carcass processing etc. (this is why this is no children’s show, no matter how cute Okja may be, as a character).

The writers also didn’t shy away from exposing the reality of the slaughter house. In Mija’s mad chase to free Okja from inevitable slaughter, she stumbles her way into the underbelly of a mutant pig slaughter plant and we see the true horror of what we, as an animal species, do to others. It’s pretty graphic and the writers completely nailed getting the message across to the audience. The intensity is high, the message is important, but it is well-balanced with the humour and antics of everyone, from Mija, Okja and the evil corporate baddies.

Bong Joon-ho doesn`t do cardboard cut-out heroes or villains, instead he prefers to design eccentric characters with weird idiosyncrasies and over-the-top traits – e.g. Mija`s grandfather whose interest is money, ALF leader Jay who is self-righteous but his ideologies are intolerant, Lucy Mirando who is obviously off her rocker having lost her marbles in the stressful dysfunctional family etc.

In summary, I would say the screenplay raises issues of corporate responsibility, the ethics of meat consumption, and the acceptable threshold of animal cruelty. It is neatly written, the narration or lines for the various characters are witty, fun at times and exceptionally well-crafted to mirror their unique eccentric personalities, another of Bong Joon-ho’s talents.

The research was undertaken to write about the capitalist enterprise, the inhumane treatment of animals within the meat industry, the genetic engineering etc., it’s all obvious and brilliant and shows the efforts the writer took to authentically portray their story. In fact, part of the research included a visit to a Colorado slaughterhouse and watching “La Parka” an Oscar-nominated short film (Sergio Arguello 2015) and “Our Daily Bread”, Austria’s Nikolaus Geyrhalter (2005). Bong Joon-ho was temporarily vegan following the visit to the slaughterhouse saying he couldn’t get over the smell. Anyone who’s visited a slaughterhouse or farm or lives in close proximity to one knows exactly what he’s talking about. You can’t shake the smell of death from you!

As an animal welfare advocate or activist myself, I liked that the film didn’t turn into a preachy monologue, but left the ‘horror’ central to the ideologies open to interpretation on a personal level by each individual that decides to watch. It’s far better than the typical vegan ram-it-down-the-throat-until-its-understood approach. Subtlety can go a long way to opening minds and doors! I tell you this from personal experience.

Of course with a creature feature of a genetically modified pig, CGI was a must. Okja truly came to life from the early concept images to the final product. Bong Joon-ho knew what he wanted – “an animal we have never seen before, it must look familiar, so it needs to have hints of animals we have seen: the pig, the hippo, the manatee.” What creature-designer Hee Chul Jang and VFX supervisor, Erik De Boer created in CGI was a truly convincing hippo-like pig with the melancholic eyes of the manatee but the boisterous playfulness of the pig in elephantine proportions of course because the animal needed to be massive! And then they added the fluff to make Okja appealing – playing with how her feet looked or the size and shape of the ears (based on African elephant ears) even adding hairy aspects to soften and feminize Okja or using an odd-looking single teat. Adding in aspects like emotions on the face, expressive eyes – particularly using reflection and colour to highlight Okja’s emotions. I’m a firm believer, whether human or animal, the eyes are indeed the windows to the soul. It’s incredibly hard to be wowed by CGI these days as so much of Hollywood productions are immersed in CGI, but the organic humanity from Okja was enticing. Puppets were not made, but a number of heads were and some shaping for other body parts. The CGI is about as real as you’re going to get in a film like this. The addition of flatulence and those flying poop pellets, a hit!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The film’s cinematographer, Darius Khondji, magicked widescreen panorama into which Erik De Boer’s CGI slipped in seamlessly. Apart from the spectacular special effects and digital mastery, the cinematography delivers visual imagery beautifully. From perfectly capturing the contrast between the natural paradise of South Korea’s mountains and the brick and mortar jungle of the big cities to the cold stark metallic slaughterhouse environment swimming in blood. Bong Joon-ho has an eye for bringing out the best of the natural beauty, whether it’s nature that is the canvas or man-made.

Darius Khondji’s approach to cinematography is very classical, exhibiting a mastery in shadow detailing, a softness that is gained by using a quiet colour palette and putting silver back onto the film in a special lab process – you just have to watch his other productions to know what I’m speaking about. Also, Okja was shot with Arri Alexa 65 camera (also used on The Revenant, Sully and Rogue One) and this is what created the amazing quality of the imagery of the production. That imagery never stops moving, the film is never still. Khondji and De Boer worked so well together to create the amazing chase scene in South Korea, an intense, nail-biting scene, expertly staged as if a choreographer had come in and plotted out a mad frenzied dance routine.

The visual narrative is in my opinion far stronger than the spoken narrative – another of Bong Joon-ho’s tricks up his sleeve. The camera lens captured repeated shots of Mija leaning into whisper in Okja’s ear, these tight close-ups show how Okja is attentively listening to every word spoken and display the bond between the two – Mija’s words are as important as the sentiment she is trying to convey. The two may not speak the same language, but they understand each other. This is common with people who treat their ‘pets’ like companions – much of the film is rooted in trust. But, it also highlights the stark difference in size between Mija and Okja. In fact, this ‘dwarfism’ is used a lot throughout the film and sends home a strong message. Those fighting against capitalist consumerism are dwarfed by those who drive the demand for industries like factory farms, dairy farms, poultry and pork industries etc. Which leads me to one observation that I found unnerving – Khondji’s cameras caught the haunting, sombre almost concentration-like-camp scene towards the end of the film, evoking for me how closely the meat industry resembles the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. And it’s true, Bong Joon-ho’s direction and how Khondji captured the scene where main characters escape the slaughterhouse facility but leaving behind Okja’s brothers and sisters is reminiscent of almost any film depicting the Nazi concentration camps – Schindler’s List comes to mind.

If you get nothing from this movie but an appreciation for how the production was filmed, that’s still something in my books!

Just as in Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho paid attention to details in Okja. The wardrobes fittingly suited each character, with Lucy Mirando’s one being spectacular and a little flamboyant, even down to the braces on Lucy’s teeth in the first scenes. The sets created for filming the slaughterhouse and other aspects were all very well constructed and gave an authentic feel and mood.

The musical choices were interesting but once again show insight. Bong Joon-ho uses the 1976 socially conscious anthem from the Isley Brothers, “Harvest to the World” as background music to the opening scene where Lucy lies about Okja’s creation and the intent she has. It’s almost tongue-in-cheek but very poignant! Another track used is John Denver’s 1974 hit tune, Annie’s Song. Surprisingly the love song is used while Mija and Okja crash themselves through an underground mall. It’s an interesting song to use because of the lyrics and their meaning and the obvious chaotic scene that unfolds. While many may be scratching their heads, Bong Joon-ho’s use of Annie’s Song was astute and unexpectedly effective.  The rhythm of the scene was juxtaposed by the lyrics and the soft gentle dulcet tones of John Denver’s singing.

Denver’s almost sickly sweet lyric just forces an imposing sense of poignancy with lines like “Come let me love you, come love me again” perfectly reflecting Mija’s sole motivation for rescuing Okja.  The lyric “like a storm in the desert” mirroring the chaos of the mall chase scene and the lyric “like a sleepy blue ocean” transporting the viewer back to the initial imagery with Mija and Okja sleepy quietly next to each other. The lyric and rhythm of the music are very powerful and astute!

For me, the overall cast featuring some of the Hollywood industry’s big names was unimportant, but, I did appreciate the fact that the film was bilingual (English and Korean) and that in including Hollywood stars Bong Joon-ho secured spotlight on the film. Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Giancarlo Esposito and Lily Collins are among the starry cast. For this review, I will focus mainly on the South Korean actors and actress because after all, this is a blog site dedicated to the review of Asian drama and film industries. If you`re offended that I don`t pay as much attention to the Hollywood superstars, get over yourselves!

For me, Ahn Seo-hyun, delivered an outstanding performance as 14-year-old Mija, carrying the emotions and sentiments of this film to perfection! She’s not a newcomer to the film industry with Mija her sixth film role and more than 20 roles in the drama industry. For Okja, Ahn Seo-hyun was given almost full control over her character perhaps because she shared a number of ideas that boosted his screenplay regarding the behaviour of the character Mija. The character Mija is very active – she is physically on the run for a large portion of the film and has many stunts e.g. bursting through a glass door, leaping off and onto things and places etc. Even though Bong Joon-ho would eventually use a stunt actor to create the scenes, Ahn Seo-hyun trained for the role hoping to convince Bong Joon-ho to let her perform her own stunts.

It can be tough acting or performing with a character that isn’t there but one that gets added in through the magic of CGI. Ahn Seo-hyun acted on set with an appropriately sized sponge-filled replica of Okja nicknamed “Stuffy” that was operated by a guy called Steve. I think she did incredibly well and made sure that the audience believed that Okja was physically present in all scenes.

For most of the film, Ahn Seo-hyun face sports a rather dour look. It’s not necessarily a reflection of her character’s personality instead it’s her interpretation of the character’s look of determination and stubbornness. Ahn Seo-hyun displays or mirrors the emotions and intensity of her character’s personality through broad facial expressions and nuanced body language. It’s like a King Kong role reversal. Ahn Seo-huyn delivers energy and spontaneity – she protects at all costs the object of her affection and the affection between the two is palpable.

 

Okja as herself is a digital creation but thanks to the work of visual arts effects Okja appears to be a real superpig – that scene where Mija and Okja, in tandem, roll over while snoozing was a genius! Visually speaking, Okja, the character is wonderful but De Boer went a step further and Okja is anthropomorphized, something that animal activists are accused of doing all the time – attributing human traits to nonhuman species. Okja uses her face to express her emotions – she shows contentment, joy, happiness, concern, fear, and hurt – pretty much anything and everything in between. And she uses her body well to demonstrate the emotions and idiosyncrasies she cannot put to words. Watching her perform was so much fun! Even in the scary scenes, she was believable. The audience was entirely mesmerized and enthralled with the budding friendship, camaraderie and love between the two leads of the film – Ahn Seo-hyun and Okja.

Both the Lucy and Nancy Mirando characters were undertaken by Tilda Swinton, also not a newcomer to Bong Joon-ho`s directing and screenplay writing. In fact, the two could be called industry work colleagues. Swinton`s performance for both characters will appear excessive to most viewers, but, in order to portray the two aspects of capitalism Bong Joon-ho created twins – Lucy as a miscreant with goofball tendencies and serious daddy issues who is the face or the marketing of capitalism, the individual who encourages you to solve your problems by purchasing `stuff, and, Nancy as a cold, calculating, manipulator who only cares about the dollars and profits of business. Swinton’s dual performances are insightful and we can laugh at them because Bong Joon-ho wrote them to be funny, but there is an underlying current that these reflections aren`t stretched too far from the truth! Swinton delivers, undeniably, a most intriguing antihero whose whining and scowling were only ever superseded by her obscene episodes of self-pitying.

 

 

 

 

Jay, the compassionate and rather gentle ALF leader was played by Paul Dano. He comes across as debonair and somewhat aloof. Paul Dano certainly shines in this role and will undoubtedly inspire many towards eco-advocacy. He delivers the stoic stance of the ALF in hysterical self-serious monologues. It’s almost like the ALF are being made fun of and I guess in some ways it could be interpreted that way, but humour goes a long way to subtly deliver a very straightforward message – the ALF mean business and their business is the protection of animals, showing the world how they are exploited and the abuse of the animal agriculture and animal husbandry. It was a fine performance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wackjob Dr Johnny Wilcox was played by Jake Gyllenhaal. The character was the eccentric TV personality-come-zoologist. I heard a lot of people stating that this character was based on Steve Irwin or perhaps UK’s Timmy Mallett. I guess the character falls somewhere in the middle, although I must admit for all his exuberance and ‘out-there’ shows, Steve Irwin had a true passion and desire for animals. Some people may have found his performance excessive (I wonder if there’s any Korean blood in his heritage?) but to me, this was perhaps one of his career bests. Mimicking Jim Carrey’s comedy style with plenty of fidgeting, farting around, high-pitched tonal delivery of lines, Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance was wildly entertaining and comical. And it was intended to be that way. Bong Joon-ho wanted the audience to hate Dr Wilcox because in Okja he resembles the face of organizations like Monsanto and the topic of genetic modification and scientific ‘research’ in animal species is divisive. I will admit Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance was distracting at times, but it is what it is.

 

 

 

 

 

Agent K of the ALF team was played by Steven Yeun of Walking Dead fame! Walking Dead is perhaps the only western drama series that I absolutely love and follow religiously. It was hard to continue after Glenn was written off by Neegan (whole different discussion right there). Bong Joon-ho has freely admitted that he wrote Agent K with Steven Yeun in mind, stating, “He’s a character that only a Korean-American could play.” The character is an airhead with sort of misguided ideas and his own personal agenda. The narration or the lines for the character are flawed in terms of grammar, syntax etc., to portray the second-language Korean-American thing. Google “How’s my Korean” with Okja and see what I’m referring to. Steven Yeun does a great job on this production and I wasn’t surprised to see him featured in the film. Steven Yeun’s interpretation and delivery of the character Agent K is very three-dimensional, but sometimes plays too hard on the foolishness or idiocy. I still love him! And he did a stellar job. I’d love to see him in other South Korean films, maybe not drama because I don’t think that matches his acting style and I personally don’t see him taking two steps back in his professional career. But, I do understand that he could bring his A-game to some of the film industry. Just imagine?

 

 

 

 

All other supporting roles whether it’s the amazing Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad) portrayal of Frank Dawson, Lucy Mirando’s right-hand man aka evildoer) or understated Shirley Henderson (Happy Valley) or any of the others, were performed well by the actors and actresses.

I think what sticks out for me the most is that Bong Joon-ho was able to find unique ways for his character’s, whether English speaking or Korean to participate in well-written jokes, that cross both the conservative South Korean culture and the more liberal over-the-top humour of Americans. In a rather political manner, what with all that is going on in the world and Trump as President, Bong Joon-ho casts a demure South Korean girl against American corporate culture. It wasn’t intentional I’m sure, but it’s quite eye-opening in the field of political discourse. And also it’s interesting to see how he bridges the cultural spheres and gaps between the two societies.

oh! … sidekicks

Not a newcomer to Bong Joon-ho productions having starred in two others, Byun Hee-bong takes on the role of Heebong, Mija`s grandfather and Okja`s official caretaker. The role is a minor supporting role, but it was delivered in true South Korean style – professionally and with a little dramatic exuberant flare – you`ll appreciate and understand if you watch more of this country`s drama and film.

Mundo Park, the go-between of Mirando Corporation and Heebong was played by Yoon Je-moon and does a fine job in this supporting role. Yoon Je-moon has had a prolific career, particularly in South Korea’s film industry, although I believe he started his career in theatre. I would have liked to see him in a more important and larger role too. I think he would have carried it well. I hope to see him in other projects for the more international market.

Choi Woo-shik (Train to Busan, Fated to Love You) plays Kim, a young driver for the Mirando Corporation. It’s good to see this kid getting some limelight in the international film market. I loved him in his roles in Train to Busan and enjoyed him in Fated to Love You, so I can honestly say I am biased. His minor role in this film was delivered just as enthusiastically as all his previous roles and no doubt will remain the same for all his future roles. I’m looking forward to them.

oh! … that’s a wrap

Bong Joon-ho proved himself yet again to be a master of socio-political films with his innate ability to combine comedy with horror but in an honest and authentic fashion so that the film is never too slapstick-ish (yes I just reinvented a word!) or too graphically horrific. It’s a talent that comes naturally to him.

True to human nature which is exceptionally egotistical, collectively as our greed and appetites have grown, as a species we always want more – bigger, better, best. And as a species, we just cannot and won’t say, “No!”. Instead, we let nothing stand between us and our desires – particularly when it comes to what we put in our mouths. The moral and ethical implications of those choices go right out the door with the scraps or in this case the carcasses. In summary, Bong Joon-ho has created an art-house morality production – a piece that causes discourse and explores the savage nature of mankind, corporate capitalism and consumerism. But Okja never entirely allows its philosophical views and ethical ideologies to foreshadow the fact that this film is still entertainment, so the comical aspects are never ignored. Okja blends both the man-and-nature holistic views with the alarming revelations of documentaries like Cowspiracy: The Sustainable Secret. It’s not vegan or vegetarian propaganda, it’s a dichotomy.

I personally enjoyed this film. I found it to be well-researched, intelligent, thought-provoking while being well-executed and provocative. The most important aspect I took away after watching it the first time was the importance of the conversations and dialogue exchanges that would be started by the ‘controversy’ of the film. That I think was Bong Joon-ho’s intent and almost always is – to highlight or bring into the light issues and then let the interpretation and opinions form by themselves so to start a discussion. I might be stretching here, but it’s what I believe. For Okja, I think he wanted to start conversations about our personal relationships with capitalism, our own personal consumption levels, and what we’re willing to settle for to attain what we want – in this case, the loss of lives of sentient beings and in that our own morality and ethical viewpoints – for example what is humane? And how do we measure what ‘humane killing is’ etc?

Bong Joon-ho’s directing of Okja was artful and tastefully accomplished. His messages were clear. I found that the film was entertaining but also important. I highly recommend watching this one!

Of course, given my animal advocacy and dietary choices, I’m a fan and will add this to my collection. I hope that if you do watch it, that you watch with an open mind and look beyond the obvious to find solutions to your own journey in facing and dealing with your consumption of consumer products and see the truth in the capitalist consumer environment we find ourselves in.

I leave you with another quote to ponder on

The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.

oh! … tidbits

A dog named Randy who belonged to a costume maker on the production inspired many of the eye shots or visual imagery of Okja’s (the character,) eyes.

Okja was nominated for the Palme d”Or at Cannes Film Festival 2017. The film was also nominated for Best Sound Editing and Best Visual Effects at the International Online Cinema Awards in 2017.

After flying from Seoul to JFK International Airport, transporting Okja along the LI Expressway to New York City, there is a shot of the well-known Cavalry Cemetery with the Manhattan skyline at dusk – this iconic view would only be seen on the way from New York City to JFK.

In the “big reveal” riot scene, there is an extended shot with a building’s street address, 30 Broad, in the background. That’s the home of Goldman Sachs, clearly a reference to the Occupy Wall Street protests

Plan B is the film production company of Brad Pitt.

oh! … soundtrack

oh! … gallery

 

 

oh! … trailers

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