We speak to the Korean director about his new action film starring an animated factory-farmed pig, Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal
Only Bong Joon Ho could concoct a madcap anti-capitalist caper like Okja. The Korean auteur’s Netflix-bound film is, like its title character, a peculiar, indefinable creature: it’s a spirited comedy that’s punishingly feel-bad in execution; it’s a family-adventure movie with “fucks” and graphic imagery; and it’s a blockbuster that’s half-subtitled with Korean actors at the fore. As a bonus, there’s Tilda Swinton as two identical twin baddies with a suspicious resemblance to Ivanka Trump.
The shape-shifting film, co-written with Jon Ronson, kicks off by asking why people are squeamish yet deliberately oblivious about the contents of their food. (Remember the bug reveal in Snowpiercer?) For Mirando, a Monsanto-ish corporation run by Lucy (Swinton), the solution consists of engineering “super pigs” and sending 26 of them – including a specimen called Okja – around the world for PR material. All of which leads to Jake Gyllenhaal as a dishevelled TV zoologist lending his face to the promo campaign. (Judging by the performance, Jake rehearsed with a DVD of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)).
The emotional core, though, belongs to 12-year-old old Mija (Ahn Seo Hyun) and her genetically modified best friend. Mija not only raised Okja, but she adores the creature, feeding it persimmons all day in the Korean mountainside. So when Mirando snatch back their property, it’s up to Mija to rescue her pal through an audacious pig-napping – with assistance from the Animal Liberation Front (including Paul Dano, Steven Yeun and Lily Collins.) But don’t be fooled by Netflix’s upbeat marketing: not only does the movie turn relentlessly bleak, it outdoes Morrissey in demonstrating why meat is murder.
Okja, then, with its visual eccentricities and sucker punches, ranks among Bong Joon Ho’s best work (Memories of a Murder (2003), The Host (2006), Mother (2009)) and will be his most widely seen thanks to its simultaneous cinema and Netflix release. Just be careful with your movie snacks. Here, we speak to the Korean director about his super film’s super pig, the horrors of the slaughterhouse, and how the White House inspired his twin villains.
You partly based the monster in The Host on Steve Buscemi in Fargo. What inspired the creature in Okja?
Bong Joon Ho: Yes, that had some references to Steve Buscemi. But Okja is based on animals – a mixture of hippo, elephant, pig and manatee. Also, do you know a 1996 Japanese movie called Shall We Dance? It has a supporting actor who’s very shy, fragile and introverted; he’s always nervous and has sweat on his face.
Doesn’t Okja look more like a hippo than a pig?
Bong Joon Ho: Exactly. They probably used a hippo’s DNA to make Okja bigger.
How do you feel about the comparisons with Studio Ghibli movies?
Bong Joon Ho: I’ve grown up with Miyazaki animations and have been a huge fan since elementary school. But this movie is more inspired by King Kong (2005) and Babe: Pig in the City (1998), the sequel directed by George Miller. It’s underrated, and I was so happy to tell him recently at Cannes, actually.
On the topic of unexpectedly dark, depressing pig movies, the advertising for Okja is a bit misleading – the second half is quite harrowing and has a lot of graphic imagery. Did you ever consider toning it down a bit?
Bong Joon Ho: (laughs) No, no. It was always intended that way. In real life, we dearly love our cute, pretty pets, and have cats and puppies in our house. At the same time, we comfortably eat steak, which is from factory farms. They’re all animals, but we separate it like left and right: on the left is a cute, pretty world; on the right is the slaughterhouse we don’t want to think about. With this movie, I wanted to integrate it. So it’s a really scary journey for Mija and Okja to finally reach that horrible, bloody slaughterhouse. I should probably forewarn the audience that parental guidance is needed.
Is that why you went to Netflix? To avoid someone like Harvey Weinstein telling you to cut out the upsetting imagery?
Bong Joon Ho: Yeah. From the beginning, Netflix gave me 100 per cent creative freedom and final cut. Other studios would always ask questions like, “Do you really want to shoot the slaughterhouse?” I’m so sick of those kind of questions. But Netflix was cool and supportive, and just wanted to support my vision.
Tilda Swinton does a Margaret Thatcher impression in Snowpiercer, and she said that, in Okja, she based Lucy on Ivanka Trump. Was this your idea?
Bong Joon Ho: (laughs) No, no, no – it was her suggestion. I totally agreed with it. “Oh, Ivanka? Amazing!” And Nancy is a female version of Trump. Tilda always enjoys a unique transformation. If you watch films like I Am Love (2010), she doesn’t have to be a villain. But personally, I don’t know why, I enjoy it so much whenever I watch her doing something evil.
“It’s a really scary journey for Mija and Okja to finally reach that horrible, bloody slaughterhouse. I should probably forewarn the audience that parental guidance is needed” — Bong Joon Ho
There’s a visual reference to the Bin Laden raid photo. Is there a deeper meaning behind this?
Bong Joon Ho: That makes me so happy – you’re one of three people to have recognised it. It’s just a visual joke. The crew members, and the casting director especially, really enjoyed it. We cast people with similar faces. Tilda Swinton is sitting in the Hillary Clinton position. In the Obama position is Giancarlo Esposito. It’s a similar situation with those people watching a live video clip from the other side of the globe.
How did Jon Ronson get involved? Presumably he wrote the dialogue about identifying psychopaths?
Bong Joon Ho: I haven’t read The Psychopath Test, but I’ve heard it’s very interesting. I didn’t know he was so well-known for writing books. I’d just watched Frank (2014), the movie with Michael Fassbender; it’s sad and has a great sense of black humour which I needed for the English-language characters in Okja.
For Jake, Tilda and the ALF gang, Jon Ronson polished the dialogue. The Korean characters were more from me. English isn’t my first language, and so I depended on my co-writer and actors. I don’t know the nuances, but I could sense Jon’s sarcastic British humour.
The film’s getting a limited cinema release in the UK and US. Would you rather people see it in theatres than on a laptop?
Bong Joon Ho: I’d like audiences to do both, if possible (laughs). All movies, not just Netflix movies, have a long life. After the theatrical release, they remain digitally on the internet or on TV or on airplanes or in hotel rooms. Films have long lifespans, and Netflix respects that; their digital archives have high quality resolution and sound. So Netflix is the best way to digitally archive a film.
“Films have long lifespans, and Netflix respects that; their digital archives have high quality resolution and sound” — Bong Joon Ho
Do you hope Okja encourages young viewers to become animal rights activists or vegetarians?
Bong Joon Ho: If someone becomes vegan after watching this movie, that’d be good. But it’s up to their discretion. I’m not forcing it. Mija’s favourite food is chicken stew. I’m not sure if you caught this, but even after the whole journey from the city to the slaughterhouse’s feed yard, at the end, in the very last scene, there’s a plate of eggs on the dining table. They have no intention of becoming vegan.
You shouldn’t feel guilty if you don’t convert to veganism. However, the problem is the mass production and how animals are suffering inside this structure. I visited slaughterhouses – they call them beef plants – in Colorado for research. They’re five times bigger than a soccer stadium. I saw every process. I kept thinking about the machines. They’re very intricate, metallic machines for disassembling beautiful cows. That means somebody invented it.
There’s a hook that latches onto the skin of the cow, and it strips it within half a second, with the horrible sound of the skin detaching from the muscle. There’s a machine invented for each process. It’s really horrible and evil. The machines were created for speed and efficiency of production, for profit. It’s not for human survival, it’s all for money.
Okja is released on Netflix and selected cinemas on June 28. Watch the trailer below.