Friday, July 14, 2017
I love Okja
I have seen three Bong Joon Ho movies now. I have seen The Host twice, once when the director personally introduced it at the VIFF a few years ago, to the cheers of a stunned, mostly-Korean audience who would never get to see him in so intimate a setting back home; and Snowpiercer once. I am glad to say that I loved Okja, his newest film, now streaming on Netflix, because I can't say I loved either of his other films that I've seen.
I kind of hated The Host, in fact. Despite all the esteem slathered on it, and much as I WANTED to like a Korean monster-movie eco-thriller that took a bite out of American practices overseas, it couldn't keep me from seeing the whole film, ultimately - thanks to its ending - as an engine by which an incompetent dad trades in a troublesome daughter he can't raise well for a much more welcome boychild. If you've missed it, the majority of the film involves a young girl protecting a younger boy from a river-dwelling giant mutant fish-thing while her family searches for her. That the daughter is, after considerable heroism, ultimately sacrificed - in a climax that teases us with her expected survival, then denies us - seemed a grossout betrayal of the audience, morally suspect in the way other child-deaths in movies haven't been (say, in The Mist, where it is utterly necessary to the narrative, if heartbreaking... Funnily enough I have no such problem with the ending of another well-made Korean genre film, Train to Busan, by which a father is sacrificed to protect his child; but what can I say, adult men are less objectionable as sacrificial offerings than little girls). That the father obviously takes to having a boy to raise instead of a girl makes it all the worse. The film was received with so much enthusiasm - with various Korean students of mine assuring me that I had misunderstood the film's intentions - that I actually watched it again, to no different effect; I enjoy much of the film, but that ending just pisses me off to no end.
Still, I was reasonably excited to see the director's cut of Bong's English-language debut, Snowpiercer, when it screened at the Vancity Theatre. I didn't find it objectionable, as I did The Host, but I can't say I enjoyed it; it didn't really satisfy me either as a thriller or political parable, and the ending, once again, proved its weakest point, with a crappy CGI polar bear taking me out of the film's world, in its last minutes, and into the land of cola commercials. That film I have felt no desire to revisit; the peak of the movie is the discovery that the food that the lower-class passengers have been eating is ground up cockroaches, which is, in a way, quite a rational emergency-measure foodstuff, while managing to be even less appealing than that other great proposed "mystery food" of the future, Soylent Green. I'd have to think long and hard about which I wanted to snack on, and thought it an inspired bit of filmmaking, but that doesn't make me want to revisit the movie just yet.
But there's obvious skill in what Bong Joon Ho does. Tarantino has compared him to Spielberg, and that seems apt, particularly given that Korean mainstream cinema borrows heavily on the filmic languages of Hollywood. I've been more excited by Park Chan Wook's movies, that I've seen, but I have also not seen the two films of Bong's that are his supposed masterpieces, Memories of Murder and Mother. It could easily be exactly the same with him as it is with Spielberg, really: maybe he only has a couple of films in his body of work that I will love (as with Jaws or Jurassic Park II) and some that I hold in contempt (Schindler's List). I might just not have seen the right movies.
Okja - Bong's new international co-production, reuniting him with Tilda Swinton (who co-stars and co-produces), and now screening on Netflix, who funded it - is the first Bong Joon Ho film I can say I loved. Having spent a few days sick at home, I got fed up of my past M.O. of saving good movies for watching with Erika, and tried in vain to get a whole sitting of Okja in on Thursday. I couldn't do it. I watched for something like 40 minutes - until the appearance of Steven Yeun (Glen of The Walking Dead). Finally I sighed and stopped: it was too good not to share.
Everything about the film is delightful - though at times dark. And watching the first third twice was welcome, and made me love the movie all the more.
Mind you, Okja deals with horrifying themes. It is not exactly a downer movie - there's a lot of feel-good stuff, a lot of humour, a lot of exciting action - Netflix describes it as an "action comedy" in its menu, and you can see why - but underneath that all, it is a story of mutant GMO animals raised by an amoral corporation, obviously meant to figure Monsanto, for human consumption, despite the fact that these animals (more hippo than pig) are strikingly intelligent, sensitive, and loyal creatures (as is the case with many domesticated animals, in fact). Its climax - this might be a mild spoiler, but you can kind of see it coming - takes place in a slaughterhouse, and draws on what might be the most morally interesting use of CGI technology ever. I suspect it would be very hard to get most viewers, outside of animal rights activists or the hardiest of cinephiles to sit down to footage of actual animals being slaughtered. I won't be trying to sit Erika down to Workingman's Death, or Blood of Beasts, or In a Year with 13 Moons, or, god help us all, Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat (the late Zev Asher's masterpiece, which contains no actual slaughterhouse footage, but which has a slaughterhouse at its moral centre; I have praised the film in her presence and gotten understandably horrified reactions, even more extreme than when I've tried to suggest we watch Devor and Mudede's Zoo). But in Okja, CGI allows us to go into a slaughterhouse where the fictional mutant superpigs are being killed. It adds just enough unreality to the proceedings that you can be confronted with the "realities" of a slaughterhouse in a safe, unreal way - something I am unaware of any other filmmaker having yet even attempted, to use CGI to present viewers with a reality most wouldn't dare look at otherwise. I think this is an important move: though I am not a vegan or even a vegetarian, I am a conflicted omnivore who believes vegans are my ethical and moral superior; and I think that if you're going to consume meat - this echoes arguments raised in Casuistry, actually - you should at least LOOK AT WHAT YOU'RE DOING, get over the denial, hypocrisy and sanitization that goes into the neat plastic packages of bloody animal flesh you buy. Even better if you kill the animal yourself: you're at least paying the full price for knowingly participating in the consumption of flesh. It is somehow less distasteful to me than lying to yourself and just chowing down on meat that has been all cleaned up and packaged by others; if you can't look killing in the face, you probably shouldn't be eating meat at all.
Another remarkable thing that Okja does requires an even bigger spoiler (you're safe for now, though). The film deals with the relationship between one such mutant superpig who is raised in Korea, as part of an international PR move, and a little girl, Mija (a terrific Ahn Seo Hyun) who loves her and has a special degree of communication with her (Okja is, likably, female). As is the way in Korean cinema - which sometimes has a Mishima-like fixation on the moral purity of the young versus the corrupted compromises of adulthood - the girl is devastated to learn than her grandfather has been lying to her about Okja's fate, which is that she will be shipped off to America for slaughter when she's fully grown. There's more to it than that - a lot more, involving the ALF (lead by Paul Dano and The Walking Dead's Steven Yeun, making the most of his bilingualism) and a debauched TV host (Jake Gyllenhaal, in a role so outrageous he seems to be channeling Sacha Baron Cohen). But, like I say, we end up in a slaughterhouse. People who share with me an aversion to Bong's The Host might reasonably be worried that the whole thing could end in a gigantic bummer. If you want to watch the film under the shadow of that worry, read no further, but - spoilertime - what's really great about the way the ending of Okja is structured is that while it DOES allow for a happy ending, in which Okja is allowed to return to South Korea with Mija, this isn't a comforting cure-all. Unlike the usual "special animal" movie pattern, where the success of an exceptional relationship between a human and an animal is offered as part of the heartwarming denial of the millions of animals slaughtered for meat each year, we are only allowed our "happy ending" to Okja at the cost of going INTO the slaughterhouse and confronting the reality that a vast herd of animals every bit as intelligent, caring, and sophisticated as Okja are going to die. (Actually I guess there are shades of Schindler's List here, except without Liam Neeson chewing the scenery about a pen he might have sold, or Spielberg himself appearing in the film to pat himself on the back over Schindler's grave). So you end up with a feelgood movie that is nonetheless morally challenging, and might still find yourself feeling a bit ambivalent about your bacon the next morning, if you haven't already given up eating meat...
There's lots else I could say about Okja - the creature itself is delightful, perhaps the most wondrous fictional animal to appear onscreen since Totoro, who seems to get a nod in a particular scene, where Mija is sleeping on her belly; and the film is deftly paced and fun throughout - but the above elements are the main reasons I loved the movie, and heartily recommend it.... though I might add that I was pleasantly surprised to see it was co-authored by Jon Ronson, best known for The Men Who Stare at Goats, but whose best book is probably Them: Adventures with Extremists, which contains his story of David Icke's controversial last attempt to speak in Vancouver - he is back again this September - and of his "investigating" Bohemian Grove with Alex Jones, who is presented - somewhat fondly - as a bullhorn-waving lunatic. It's a great read, though there's not much in it that will remind you of Okja.