‘Bong’ Hit: “Okja” & Joon-ho’s Art Of Juggling

Filmmaking is a very delicate dance. There are a million ways you could go wrong, about three or four ways to do it right and only one way to do it perfectly. Now, you’d argue that what I just said is ridiculous. That perfect films don’t exist. In-fact, perfection is nothing but a myth, an oasis on the horizon, a golden goose conjured up to be chased, so that you could strive to be better and keep going on. But I’d say, no. Perfect films do exist. Of course, they are a very small minority among the vast ocean of so-bad-it’s-good, shit, average and good films. Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” (1949) is an example of a flawless film. I have seen it about a dozen times and I am yet to find a single fault in it. Everything, from the acting to the lighting, the background score and the editing, the story, the pace, the cinematography, the direction, everything is just perfect. “The Third Man” basically knocked the film-noir genre out of the park and it has not yet been bettered. It is one of the finest films ever made.

There are a few other examples: Wong Kar-wai’s “In The Mood For Love”, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” (part I and II), Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove”, Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon”, Michael Mann’s “Heat”, Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood”, Coen brothers’ “No Country For Old Men” and a few others. And while there are few flawless films, there are fewer filmmakers who can make a flawless film. Here’s where my point in context of this particular blog post comes in. While none of Bong Joon-ho’s films are flawless, a couple of them come really, really close. “Okja” is not one of them. But even then, it is pretty fucking awesome.

If you don’t know of him, Bong Joon-ho is a South Korean film director and has made six feature films till now, including his latest: “Okja”. I stumbled onto “Snowpiercer” (his fifth film) a few years ago and that’s how I discovered the madly beautiful world of Bong Joon-ho films. Not too long ago, I devoured all of his films and I can safely say he is one of the better directors working today. The man is yet to make a bad film and I love him. So I was really excited for “Okja” and the fact that it was releasing on Netflix. No fricking way it would have released on Indian screens. Anyway, like I mentioned in my last blog post, yesterday, before watching “Okja”, I rewatched every Bong Joon-Ho film so I could discuss his new film in comparison to his past work and discuss his art on my blog. Someone should be paying me for this. Okay, let’s do this shit.

Before delving into “Okja” (sorry, if you came thinking this is a review. It is not), let’s talk a bit about Bong Joon-ho. His films are pretty eclectic and if you look at his filmography, it’s a smorgasbord of different themes and genres. His first film, “Barking Dogs Never Bite” was a dark comedy about a man who hates and kills dogs and a young woman who’s trying to track him down. His second was the excellent “Memories Of Murder”, a neo-noir crime drama about two cops on the tail of a serial killer. His third feature was “The Host”, a monster-film (a simplistic way to describe it, but more on it later). His fourth, “Mother”, a drama about a mom on a mission to clear her son’s name which also doubles as a whodunit. His fifth, also his first English-language film, “Snowpiercer”, which was a sci-fi action/thriller, starring Captain America himself, about a train that endlessly runs around a frozen Earth, carrying the last remaining humans. The film is also a commentary on class and society. And then comes “Okja”, an adventure film about a genetically modified super pig and a young girl who are best friends. If you’ve seen “Okja”, you know it is much more than that. Basically, Bong Joon-ho likes to mix it up. But even though his films are far apart in subject matter, they all have his unique stamp all over them. Every director has his thing. Bong Joon Ho’s thing is that he likes to fuck with us. He likes to play around with the tone of his films. One moment, you’ll be biting your nails in anticipation of something horrible happening and the next you’ll be guffawing. He catches you unaware and surprises you. “Memories Of Murder” is a dark film based on a real-life serial killer who raped and murdered numerous young women in South Korea from mid-80s to early 90s. It is almost always raining in the film, the characters are complex and it is grim and gritty as fuck. Yet, there are countless moments of excellent humour that pop out of the most unexpected of places. There is even a running gag throughout the film! And it is hilarious. Similarly, you’ll find Bong Joon-Ho’s other films peppered with humour in dark places. “The Host” is about a horribly mutated fish-monster that one day emerges out of the Han river and terrorises the city. Sounds like Godzilla, but it isn’t. As the story progress, you’ll be scared for the fate of the highly sympathetic characters. The story keeps taking grim turns. But the excellent dialogue and direction will keep providing moments of comic relief. And it will never feel jarring. It seems like a fairly simple thing, but it isn’t. Bong Joon-ho uses various techniques to subtly highlight the absurdity that exists in real life. This makes his films incredibly human and whatever is going on the screen feels natural. You’ll never find him falling back on genre clichés and tropes (which 99 percent of the films do). Instead he falls back on the human condition. When you’ll expect his protagonists to do something heroic, they’ll end up doing something incredibly stupid. And when you’re not expecting it at all, when you have your guard down, Bong Joon-ho’s characters will shine in unique and surprising ways. He can make you sympathise with a character who kills a dog. And it’s hard to make that work. People don’t like surprises. Not any more than they like dead dogs. But people like Bong Joon-ho’s films. That is his incredible craft as a filmmaker; he is always riding a unicycle on a tight rope, balancing an egg on the tip of his nose, whilst juggling three baseball bats. There are so many ways this could go horribly wrong. But it hasn’t, in six tries! “Okja” pulls this off as well.

“Okja”‘s first thirty minutes will bring you sheer joy as the time is spent showing the beautiful relationship between the titular super pig Okja and a young girl Mija, who is her caretaker and best friend. Bong Joon-ho establishes the bond between the two with simple and tender scenes. It is just adorable to see them both having a merry time among the hills of South Korea and it is funny as well. It also succeeds because the CGI work done for Okja is incredible and it never falters. The cute creature, kind of a cross between a pig and a hippopotamus, is believable and expressive. It is also shown as highly emotionally intelligent and is instantly likable. But of course trouble is on its way, the two are separated when Okja is taken away by the Mirando Corporation, an agrico with a crazy CEO. Mirando Corp had genetically modified pigs into many such super pigs ten years ago to solve a food crisis and sold it as nature’s miracle, because people aren’t cool with GM foods. Twenty-six of the best super pigs were sent to farmers all around the world as a PR stint. Okja, sent to Mija’s grandfather in South Korea, is one the 26. Now Mirando wants them all back. The second act becomes more of an action/adventure affair. Mija, with the help of Animal Liberation Front (ALF), a dubious group of animal lovers/rescuers fighting big money corporations, tries to rescue Okja. A brilliant set-piece follows, intentions are made clear, plans are laid out and a lie is told. Okja is taken away to New York by  the Mirando Corp. The third act, a final attempt to rescue Okja and expose Mirando’s unethical practices, quickly turns into a very real, very spine-chilling commentary on corporate greed and the horrors of meat industry. It is truly affecting. Trust me, If you are a non-vegetarian, you will be disturbed and you will be uncomfortable and you will be questioning yourself. I know I was. I don’t want to give much away, but “Okja” doesn’t end the way you expect it to. It is not just a film, but a bold and brave critique of capitalism.

“Okja” shifts in tone rather heavily and it shocks you, but it doesn’t disappoint you one moment. Like I said before, tone is a tough nut to crack and Bong Joon-ho handles it amazingly well. He plays on both sides of a game and doesn’t lose with either. There are a few moments of dazzling beauty which are almost magical, I don’t want to spoil them, but watch out for the scene involving umbrellas. And of course, there are moments that will break your heart. The film’s shining light is Ahn Seo-hyun, the 13-year-old who plays Mija. She outperforms everyone, even the ever-superb Tilda Swinton, who kind of channels her “Snowpiercer”-crazy as Lucy Mirando, the CEO of Mirando Corp. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a zealot-zoologist/TV personality, kind of like a Steve Irwin gone batshit crazy. His performance too is loud and over the top, but it fits. Paul Dano gives a solid performance as Jay, the leader of ALF. In-fact, he is second only to Seo-hyun, in my opinion.

“Okja” is Bong Joon-Ho’s second English-language film, and coupled with “Snowpiercer”, it is apparent that he is going in a certain direction. So far so good. Let’s see where the road leads to. “Okja” is yet another medal on his decorated chest. The film is of course not perfect. It has his its fair share of flaws. But it is Netflix’s first true hit after countless duds, and the credit goes to its visionary director. And in what seems to be a mediocre year for films, “Okja” is one of the finest we have been served in 2017. If this was a review, I’d give it 7,579 bananas out of 8,751 strawberries. Go watch it now.

A rather long PS: “The Host” is not just a monster film, it is also a family drama. It subverts the horribly cliched monster genre in many ways. It is a phenomenal film and I cannot recommend it enough. Simply put, it is the best monster film I’ve ever seen. Oh, and if you were wondering, the two Bong Joon-ho films that come close to being flawless are “Memories Of Murder” and “Mother”. The former is my favourite Bong Joon-Ho film and is one of the finest examples of the crime genre. One of its iconic scenes also pays homage to the “The Third Man”. Both “Memories of Murder” and “Mother” are brilliantly shot, superbly acted and aptly scored. The two remain, in my opinion, Bong Joon-ho’s finest works. If you haven’t seen these two, or any other Bong Joon-ho film, “Okja” is a good place to start and then you can further descend down the ladder into his beautifully chaotic world. Happy watching.




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