Saturday, 23 May 2020

Movie review: Okja, dir Bong Joon-ho (2017)

If you are vegan, this movie will press all the right buttons. If, like me, you eat meat, it can still be rewarding as the filmmakers are wise to the dynamics of an often acrimonious debate being carried out in the public sphere. This London-based individual liked the film:

For some, this kind of product speaks to who they are. In an ongoing discussion about what kind of food people should eat, many argue that eating meat is ethically questionable (some would put the proposition more forcefully than that, and say it is criminal). The term “factory farming” is used a lot by different people, and ‘Okja’ certainly exploits this notion with a degree of vigour.

Whatever your views, the movie is worth spending time with, if for no other reason than because it gives you the opportunity to see some fine special effects. Okja is a sentient, giant pig-like creature living in the Korean forest with Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), the granddaughter of a man (Byun Hee-bong) ostensibly chosen by the fictional Mirando Corporation to raise the beast. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a flamboyant TV personality and naturalist named Johnny Wilcox who comes to Mija’s house, when she’s a teenager, with a video team and handlers – including, of course, a translator. When Okja is taken away, Mija is devastated, and so begins her journey.

Apart from Gyllenhaal, who helps develop that part of the movie that is about the difference between East and West, Tilda Swinton is fine as Lucy Mirando, the head of the eponymous company, and Giancarlo Esposito is very fine as an employee named Frank Dawson. These three characters are matched in their Swiftian cast by Paul Dano as Jay, the leader of a shadowy group of vigilantes – or, if you prefer, troublemakers – named the Animal Liberation Front. Jay and his team are ethically minded, sometimes to a ridiculous degree, so the laughs fall seemingly at random.

The way that Johnny Wilcox comes across – loud, superficial, brash, and weak – comically plays with Asian stereotypes of Westerners and how Mija and her grandfather are imagined by the filmmakers is emblematic of a mostly forgotten idea that modernity is alien and inauthentic in an Asian context. Bong also wrote much of the screenplay so his vision is behind the filmmakers’ archaeological effort to celebrate an antique notion of the holiness of the ordinary, harking back to a kind of animism – used even today in a Japanese religion called Shinto – that appears to have been abandoned (but that, in fact, lives on in subtle ways; living in Tokyo today is not the same as living, say, in Sydney). The remote fastness, at the top of a mountain, as a site for the getting of wisdom, is ancient in such countries as China. In fact, ‘Okja’ would’ve appealed to many people living in a country like China or Japan in the first half of the 20th century. But this toying with stale tropes, ideas that embody such feelings as intolerance and shame, is made reasonable because of the humour used in the conveyance. Nevertheless, Bong is saying, we can learn something valuable about the past if we take seriously our own search for authenticity, and don’t just use it – as Mirando and Dawson do – as a mere marketing gimmick. Mija is different not just because she doesn’t speak English very well; her character is also expressed in how she uses objects.

Swinton and Gyllenhall and Dano might be mere foils for her authenticity, but though Bong laughs, at the same time, at himself, he takes his method to an extreme by inaccurately depicting genetic modification (GM). His vision is much the same as what Margaret Atwood used for ‘Oryx and Crake’ (2003). Atwood’s vision of the future includes a type of animal called a “pigoon” – a cross between a pig and a raccoon – that has, unlike Okja, a mean streak. In reality, GM is nothing like this and nowadays is used to develop new varieties of plants. In any case, a scientific form of animal husbandry is older than history; humans have been engineering animal forms for as long as agriculture (which some say started 12,000 years ago) has existed.

Bong needs his ideas to work in harmony within the confines of the artwork, so in the context of this review these are quibbles. But the problem of food bullying is real, as Michele Payne, an Indiana resident who writes about food, showed on 20 May at 5.01am Australian Eastern Standard Time, tweeting: “Is it OK to shame people about their eating choices if it's not socially acceptable to shame people on race, religion or sexual orientation?” Payne is vocal in this regard, and others on Twitter are equally vocal in their support of lifestyles that eschew the eating of meat. The debate continues and Bong’s movie is unmistakeably part of it. The movie didn’t have the same effect on me as it did on Tahsin Upa – whose tweet sits at the top of this review – as it felt like I was being manipulated by filmmakers wanting to make a political point. 

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