Each month, we at FilmHounds take a look at a director’s back catalogue and pick their lowest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes and ask ourselves – why? Why is it their least loved among critics? Regardless, we attempt to see the good in it.
Yes, director Bong’s lowest rated film sits at an impressive 87%, but lowest rated is still lowest rated and Bong is a director of some note. It seems like a lifetime ago that he stood clutching four statues at the Oscars, his ever present translator Sharon Choi ready to inform us that the acclaimed South Korean auteur just wants to get wasted and celebrate. His 2019 powerhouse Parasite swept four gongs for the man himself: Best Original Screenplay, Best International Feature, Best Director and an mighty Best Picture win.
For many, Bong is a director of both substance and mainstream appeal. His debut Barking Dogs Never Bite set him out as a director to watch, while crime thriller Memories of Murder signalled the arrival of a new wave of Korean cinema along with his friend Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. His 2006 monster movie The Host was hailed as the best film of that year by Quentin Tarantino, and his cult drama Mother is one of his most acclaimed works. His move to English language with sci-fi comic book adaptation Snowpiercer might have had a rough release thanks to Harvey Weinstein, but now it has been properly released it’s become something of a cult classic.
Which brings us to Okja – like all of director Bong’s films, Okja is a film that melds genres often in the same scene, and jumps between tones so frequently it’s often hard to judge what film you’re in. Written with Jon Ronson, Okja is a science fiction adventure film with a political bite, following Ahn Seo-hyun as Mija, a young farming girl who takes care of a genetically modified super pig.
As with all of Bong’s films, Okja has a political subtext to it, this time about big business and the business of how food gets to our tables. The breeding of these super pigs speaks to the ever evolving manner of farming and that big corporations use small, often poor, farmers in foreign countries to grow and raise cattle for minimal money. Like Snowpiercer and Parasite, there is a disconnect between the haves and the have-nots. Mija is the hero of the story not only because she fights to save her friend but because she is not blinded by money or ambition. It’s impossible to watch the film and not see parallels with Charlotte’s Web, though this film has a much darker heart to it.
Bong clearly has an affinity for children – they feature heavily in his films and are often the key to survival and/or the future – and none more so than Mija. Despite no Bong film getting acting nominations (a true tragedy), he has often been able to get career-best performances out of people – his frequent collaborator Song Kang-ho delivers his best work with Bong, but in Okja Seo-hyun carries the film. It’s thanks to her performance that we buy into this big CGI pig.
When it comes to Okja himself, Bong is able to create a lasting character, – like the monster at the heart of The Host or even the train itself in Snowpiercer – Okja is a character within the film. Despite looking more like a hippo and a manatee crossed together, Okja the super pig is essentially a big dog. It’s the bond between Okja and Mija that the film finds it’s beating heart but that might also be why the film isn’t as lauded as other Bong films. The sentimentality at the heart of the film is sometimes at odds with Bong signature filmmaking.
Things get complicated when the film expands into English language roles, the supporting cast are all superb – Tilda Swinton as corporate twins plotting to profit for Okja, while Jake Gyllenhaal plays his most unhinged role yet as a sort of Nigel Thornberry on crack Johnny Wilcox. The animal-rights activists are big issues, while Paul Dano, Steven Yeun and Lily Collins are all very talented performers and their roles are noble to a point. The juxtaposing of their crusade against the villainous Mirando Corporation and their wanted lying and endangering of Mija make them hard to sympathise with at times.
The film’s tonal shifts might also knock people off guard, while biting political satire and lashings of violence are Bong’s stock-in-trade they’re often undercut here with childish humour. Okja does big rubber bullet sized poops that shoot out at enemies in a hide speed chase, his farts are near toxic and he has a playful love of both bodily functions. While Bong’s habit of mixing the gross – people eating weirdly, spitting, goo – with the fatal is nothing new, the slapstick of armed goons slipping over in Okja’s large dumps feels out of place with the slow-motion police brutality found later in the film.
Even so, there is a political message about meat and meat consumption here, and it would be impossible not to see the burning passion with which Bong directs. It might be worth mentioning that it being a Netflix release and the Cannes release controversy sullied some people’s views, and it’s not nearly as talked about as the rest of Bong’s work, but given the hassle he had with Snowpiercer, accepting the warm embrace of Netflix’s “do what you want” policy must have been freeing.
Okja therefore remains a mixture of child-animal fable and political rallying cry that might not be for everyone but as a Bong Joon-ho film, it fits very comfortably in his filmography as bona fide modern classic, super big pig poops and all.