Monday, July 3, 2017

Okja is two hours of Bong Joon-ho's usual boldness, plus Jake Gyllenhaal doing an odd Marvin Tikvah impression

This is the seventh of 12 or 13 all-new blog posts that are being posted on a monthly basis until this blog's final post in December 2017.

I love the work of Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho. Based on a real-life serial-killer case that remains unsolved, 2003's Memories of Murder, the second feature film from "Director Bong," intriguingly takes the standard "grisly serial-killer case psychologically damages the detectives on the case" thriller and expands its scope so that it morphs into a dark comedy about the ineptitude of institutions like the police, and it's so critical of institutions you'd expect David Simon to have had a hand in writing it. The Host, Bong's 2006 follow-up to Memories of Murder, became South Korea's biggest box-office hit ever by effectively mashing up the monster movie genre with dysfunctional family comedy and trenchant satire about both Korean and American institutions. Mother, Bong's 2009 whodunit about a mentally challenged prime suspect in a small-town murder case, is a worthy addition to the pantheon of twisted movies to watch on Mother's Day like Psycho and Serial Mom. Snowpiercer, a rare dystopian sci-fi flick that takes place in perpetual snowfall rather than being drenched in acid rain or set against orange desert landscapes, is both an inventive take on class warfare and 2014's most mesmerizing blockbuster starring a white guy named Chris.

These are all darkly comic films with a recurring disdain for either broken institutions or corporate malfeasance. So I was prepared to dislike the made-for-Netflix Okja, a globetrotting fantasy film that finds Bong venturing into Free Willy territory for a story about a Korean farm kid's bond with a genetically modified female "superpig"--an empathetic creature that behaves less like a pig and more like a dog/hippo hybrid--she wants to save from the slaughterhouse. Has Bong the sharp satirist gone all soft and cuddly on us?

Nah, not really. For his first family-friendly film since The Host (its R rating in America is, by the way, overblown--the original Gremlins is grislier than The Host--and I think its bittersweet ending had a lot to do with it being slapped with an R), Bong takes on the GMO industry and two-faced corporate culture, and his satirical vision of a feud between animal rights activists and Mirando, a Monsanto-style corporation with a deceptively sunny disposition, is slightly darker than I expected from a film that spends much of the first half-hour in idyllic, nearly dialogue-less rural splendor that's visually inspired by My Neighbor Totoro.

My Neighbor Totoro

Oh yeah, I almost forgot about the amount of F-bombs freely tossed around by Steven Yeun and Daniel Henshall--who play members of a Paul Dano-led "Animal Liberation Front"--as well as by Jake Gyllenhaal and Snowpiercer star (and Okja co-producer) Tilda Swinton, who's given this time by Bong a dual role as a pair of twin sisters who run Mirando (and have differing approaches to handling the corporation's crusade against world hunger). Bong has an awesome interpretation of "family-friendly."

Could you imagine what would have happened if Bong--who decided to go into business with Netflix after wanting to avoid another go-round of the amount of shit he had to put up with while Harvey Weinstein tried to butcher Snowpiercer because Weinstein wanted it to be more "accessible" (the kerfluffle led to a backlash against Weinstein from film geeks, which resulted in spectacular business for Bong's final cut of Snowpiercer on VOD in America)--stupidly kept doing business with Harvey and Bob Weinstein and Okja was a Weinstein Company release instead? I'm cringing right now over the thought of a version of Okja that's recut to conform to whatever The Weinstein Company thinks American audiences prefer about a fantasy film with a 13-year-old female lead, so that it's filled with badly redubbed moments where F-bombs used to be.

Of course, if Okja were a Weinstein Company release, the sinister Swinton characters of Lucy and Nancy Mirando, who want to send the titular superpig to the slaughterhouse, would probably not exist. The twins are clearly Bong's two-hour dig at the Weinstein brothers, who are notorious for sending to the slaughterhouse foreign films they bought for the American market (notice how Mirando has the same first four letters as Miramax, the indie studio the Weinsteins founded and later abandoned), and the Weinsteins almost succeeded in slicing up Snowpiercer as if it were those janky-looking protein blocks Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer and Song Kang-ho had to eat in the future.

Okja the superpig--a convincingly imposing CG creation by the effects wizards at Method Studios, whose most sublime effects moment has Okja slipping on shopping mall floors while she's being chased through the streets of Seoul, a nice visual touch that's reminiscent of the sea creature's clumsy gait in The Host--isn't just a giant-sized stand-in for all the animals the activist crowd has attempted to rescue from cruel treatment or experimentation. She's also a metaphor for Snowpiercer or any other work of art that has gotten entangled in the conflict between art and commerce or has been in danger of being butchered or compromised by corporate masters.

The creative freedom Bong was permitted from Netflix resulted in a kid-and-a-pet flick that's like no other. Donnie Kwak, the Ringer writer and former producer of Complex's Desus vs. Mero, the precursor to Desus and Mero's current (and hilarious) late-night show on Viceland, has pointed out how Okja, Bong's third film with both Korean and English dialogue, is remarkable for featuring "what might be the most realistic Korean-American character in film history": Yeun's activist character. The character is known primarily as "K" and does the translating for Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), Okja's owner, when she crosses paths with K's ALF organization after her attempt to rescue her pet in Seoul goes viral and attracts the attention of ALF. "K is a resoundingly faithful depiction of a real Korean-American person," wrote Kwak, whose insightful Ringer piece praises how Yeun, whom Bong had in mind for the role while he wrote the screenplay, subtly captures "the weight of the hyphen separating his Korean-American identity" and the sense of displacement K and many other Korean Americans (the hyphen is extraneous, in my opinion) feel as people veering back and forth between American and Korean cultures. In a year that has so far subjected Asian Americans to the whitewashing of Japan's Ghost in the Shell franchise and unwatchable white savior drivel like the Netflix misfire Iron Fist, that's something. And there are enjoyable little jokes other American studios would have requested Bong to not do, like when he ordered the English subtitle for one of K's Korean lines to be translated as "Mija! Try learning English. It opens new doors," even though K is actually saying, "Mija! Also, my name is Koo Soon-bum," a gag only Korean-speaking viewers will notice.

"'Koo Soon-bum' is sort of like a white man saying his name is 'Buford Attaway,'" wrote Vulture staff writer E. Alex Jung, who added that when he interviewed Yeun, the former Walking Dead cast member told him that "When [K] says 'Koo Soon-bum,' it's funny to you if you're Korean, because that's a dumb name. There's no way to translate that. That's like, the comedy drop-off, the chasm between countries."

But the best moments of humor in Okja are ones that are able to cross language barriers, particularly the little ways Mirando's Korean employees in the corporation's Seoul offices express disdain for these interloping corporate overlords from America, whether it's the way one of the high heels of a bored Mirando receptionist (Bongryun Lee) lazily dangles from her foot while she's waiting for calls or the clearly stoned line delivery of Kim (Woo Shik Choi), a Mirando truck driver whose dissatisfaction with his job is beautifully spelled out in his funny delayed reactions to his bosses rather than in unnecessary exposition. "He's this young kid who's probably really highly educated and therefore he speaks English, and yet he can only get a job doing part-time truck driving for a company," said Okja co-producer Dooho Choi (no relation to Choi) about Kim's off-screen backstory in Kwak's Ringer piece.

The performances by Choi, Yeun, Ahn and Yoon Je-moon as a Korean Mirando employee who wants to keep Okja away from Mija are understated in comparison to the broadly drawn villains played by Swinton and Gyllenhaal, who, outside of Bubble Boy (remember that?), Nightcrawler and that SNL episode where he sang "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" in drag, has never played a cartoonish caricature like "Dr. Johnny," a washed-up animal show host, before. Dr. Johnny, the public face of Mirando, cares little about the welfare of animals and is the film's answer to the question "What if the deceased Steve Irwin were American and coked-up and sweaty all the time?" But Steve Irwin is the furthest thing from your mind during Gyllenhaal's scenery-chewing performance (whereas Swinton, despite her continuing fondness for wigs and non-British accents, is actually restrained by comparison, as are Paul Dano, Lily Collins as an American member of ALF and Giancarlo Esposito as Lucy's right-hand man). It's a head-scratcher of an acting turn that constantly makes you think, "Why is Gyllenhaal speaking like Marvin Tikvah from MADtv?"

Kwak wrote that he thinks Okja's lone weakness is the way that it feels like two different movies are competing for attention at the same time--an understated movie that's more in line with Bong's movies prior to Snowpiercer versus a more broadly played and completely over-the-top one during Okja's scenes in New York--but that odd, Ugly Betty-ish dichotomy has actually always been part of Bong's approach to storytelling. Bong loves tonal shifts that confuse most of the audience--the most memorable example, as well as the ultimate test to see if someone is ready for Bong's offbeat films or not, is the gym scene in The Host, where a painful moment of grief morphs into slapstick, and it somehow works--and I get a little tired of critics who dismiss Bong's tonal shifts as sloppy filmmaking. And, again, in a year of Iron Fist and the Pat Boone-ization of Ghost in the Shell, there's something that's necessary and comforting about Okja's over-the-top scenes in New York.

The corporate overlord scenes have a white leading man like Gyllenhaal playing, in a movie with a predominantly Asian cast, the same kind of unflattering and over-the-top caricature that was written for either Gedde Watanabe in any '80s and '90s American movie or all those Japanese actors in Lost in Translation, the xenophobic piece of shit that film critic Inkoo Kang (after having to recently revisit it due to the accolades Lost in Translation director Sofia Coppola received at Cannes this year) nicely tore apart because "Not a single Japanese person is relatable as a fellow human being" and it's marred by "the dismissal of contemporary Japanese culture as imitative and clueless." Bong has always been as tough on America as he is on broken institutions in Korea--a Ferdy on Films piece on The Host points out how Bong "takes every opportunity to make Americans look like idiots and bullies"--and the flamboyant-looking villainy of the Mirando sisters and Dr. Johnny is the latest example of that. For an Asian American viewer like me, the sight of Swinton and Gyllenhaal playing villainous American caricatures in an Asian film is amusing on many levels: it's like watching a form of movie jail where Swinton, who drew anger from Asian Americans for trying to defend her role as a whitewashed Ancient One in Doctor Strange, and Gyllenhaal, who starred as the title character in the whitewashed movie version of Prince of Persia, are being punished for their offenses. It's highly unlikely that Bong said to Swinton, Gyllenhaal and Shirley Henderson (who plays a fast-talking Mirando PR lady) something along the lines of "You know all those one-note, nuance-free acting roles they always stick Asians in outside our continent? Now it's your turn to play those parts in our movies," but I wish he did.

But you know what's the funniest thing about all that scenery-chewing Gyllenhaal does and all the wigs, braces and thick sunglasses Swinton buries herself under during Okja? They're not the things everybody will remember most about Okja. What everybody will be talking about instead (other than the visual effects, of course) is now-13-year-old Ahn Seo-hyun's understated performance as Mija.

When Mija leaves her grandfather's farm to protect Okja from the clutches of Mirando, Ahn and her stunt double run and jump through the streets of Seoul and New York during unexpected chase sequences that are as dazzling (and shot with Bong's usual preference for not-so-Michael-Bay-ish clarity) as the set pieces in The Host and Snowpiercer. Any time somebody cobbles together the film's footage of Mija hopping around and clinging to the sides of trucks to stay by Okja's side--which is what Netflix's trailer for Okja does--it hilariously results in this socially conscious (and initially sweet-natured and placid) fantasy film looking like The Bourne Supremacy.

As film reviewer Kristy Puchko notes over at Pajiba, Ahn's disinterest in being charming or easily accessible "makes Mija a standout female character in American cinema," and Ahn wins over the audience "because she gives no fucks, rejecting adult bullshit and slapping down promotional signs with all the fury you'd expect from a child robbed of her pet/best friend." Her performance helps shut down a concern like "Has Bong the sharp satirist gone all soft and cuddly on us?" Okja is, fortunately, proof that Bong's not here to be either soft, cuddly or--and this is perhaps worse--generic in ways the Weinsteins would have wanted.

Okja and a surprising amount of Bong films--including Barking Dogs Never Bite, Bong's 2000 debut film and an interesting rough draft for the much more confident satirical material that was to follow--are currently streamable on Netflix. Memories of Murder and Snowpiercer are, unfortunately, not presently part of the streaming service's library.

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