Although bolstered by a heavy focus on the harrowing corporate truths of the world’s meat processing industries it seems it was never Bong Joon-ho’s intention to have audiences convert to veganism after watching the enchanting and eye-opening Okja. Instead, the ace South Korean director explains he wanted to make a film that depicts the extreme states of capitalism we live in today, such that even imaginary super-piglets, and the innocent children who love them, could be so unethically used and exploited by the system.
In speaking with Toronto audiences via Skype, following the film’s first theatrical showing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, director Bong admits that the idea for Okja herself came to him in a sudden vision while he was driving, years ago (while entirely sober). Imagining a very big animal with a shy & sad face, he then built a story around why such a majestic creature might be bogged down in melancholy. Stemming from this vision rose a film that is as wonderfully odd and inventive as it is rooted in the unfortunate realism of the corporate forgery that most of us turn a blind eye to; and the dangerous risks activists, much like the film’s “Animal Liberation Front”, put themselves at for various noble causes in our society today. Featuring a stellar cast of indie film MVPs such as Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano in a mix of flamboyant and entirely peaceful roles, Okja is also peppered with Joon-ho’s signature for subtle details and inside jokes; for example, a board room scene is mockingly shot to mirror that of the Whitehouse war room during the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Joon-ho also explained that Swinton’s dual roles as evil corporate twins came from a metaphorical thought about the ‘2 faces’ that many real-life multinational companies usually have.
Carried by the young but extremely impressive Ahn Seo-hyun as Mija, the film shuttles between a quirky childhood adventure and vexing adult satire with ease. The film is beautifully captured in lush Korean nature and New York City landscapes, and the phenomenal CGI work to create Okja herself. Special mention must also be given to the sound design team that gently takes us between such polarizing noises as the quiet breathing of a giant pig, who ingeniously resembles more of a hybrid hippopotamus/elephant, and the intensity of a New York City parade.
Okja is an undoubted cinematic delight for animal lovers and non alike, but will likely sit with many at the end as a jarring inner look at the cruelty of the meat rearing and processing corporation, especially after falling in love with the gentle sweetness of Okja. After visiting a slaughter house in the US in 2015, Joon-ho explained that he instinctively became vegan for a few months, and the scenes in Okja are apparently only a very mild depiction of what he witnessed on his visit.
With a steady mix of outrageous, imaginative bursts of energy and long drawn emotional moments and harrowing scenes of animal cruelty, Okja is a sophisticated a film that balances genres as easily and excellently as director Bong Joon-ho balances arthouse and commercial cinema himself, most clearly with this latest masterpiece.
Okja is playing on the big screen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Tuesday July 4th as a double bill with director Bong Joon Ho’s 2003 hit, Memories of Murder. Tickets available here. Okja is now streaming on Netflix.
By Dilani Rabindran, Reel Asian International Programmer (South Asia)