Terrific, radiant, humble superpig

Okja and MIja (Ahn Seo-hyun)I think the best reason to applaud the ascendance of the Netflix and Amazon TV and film studios is their willingness to fund the ambitious projects of artists like the Wachowskis (Sens8), Jill Soloway (Transparent), and Aziz Ansari (Master of None) — and now Bong Joon Ho, who directed the insane, groundbreaking Snowpiercer, as well as the modern Korean classics Memories of Murder, Mother, and The Host. His latest, produced and distributed by Netflix, is Okja, a scathing sci-fi satire about greed, family, factory farming, and a giant mutant pig with a heart of gold. By Bong’s standards, it’s a lesser film, but better than the vast majority of films available in theaters: hilarious, sad, horrifying, poignant, and daring.

Tilda Swinton plays Lucy Mirando, the CEO of a Monsanto-like corporation founded by her sociopathic father and recently run by her similarly amoral sister Nancy. Lucy has severe platinum blonde bangs and a cheery affect and determination tinged with a cynical worldview. At the beginning of the film, she also has a slight lisp from braces. She’s Karen Crowder from Michael Clayton (a role that won her an Oscar) after heaps of Prozac and a shot of adrenalin, probably synthetic. Lucy is trying to rehabilitate her company by raising superpigs who will feed the world, and in a less-than-believable way to publicize it, she’s hosting a contest to see which farmer can raise the best one. The contest is hosted by Johnny Wilcox, a deranged former animal show host played with bonkers abandon by Jake Gyllenhaal.

Ten years later in rural South Korea, young Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) and her grandfather (Byun Hee-bong) have raised their superpig Okja by letting it roam freely around their mountain home. Okja is Mija’s best friend, looking like a porcine hippo and acting like a cross between Lassie and Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web. Mija thinks that her grandfather has bought Okja from Mirando, but discovers he’d lied to her after Wilcox shows up with a camera crew and takes Okja away. Enraged and resolute, Mija travels to Seoul to save Okja but she’s met with Mirando’s paramilitary forces and an animal rights terrorist group headed by a soft-spoken, tie-wearing man named Jay (Paul Dano). There’s an epic chase scene, capitalistic machinations, and Okja ends up in New York, where multiple horrors await. But Lucy sees Mija as a way to stave off a public relations disaster, and Mija flies across the world for the unveiling of Okja as the winner of the super pig contest. Things don’t go as planned for anyone; the third act is outrageous, as action comedy and as horror.

Throughout his oeuvre, Bong has threaded trenchant political commentary into genre plotting, sometimes more obvious than not. While Okja has similarities to The Host, with a young girl protagonist and a collection of clueless professionals dealing with an impossible creature, most non-Korean viewers needed to have its political references and positions explained. Okja is an obvious and contemptuous attack on the soulless cruelty of modern slaughterhouse food production and the carelessness of genetic manipulation of animals. Most American films that might have similar politics would be serious-minded Oscar-bait, like Silkwood or Norma Rae. And most animal-child buddy teams appear in G-rated family films like, well, Lassie. Okja, despite its visual style, slapstick moments, and basic plot structure, is decidedly not a kids movie. The violence, to both humans and especially to animals, is nightmarish. No studio would have allowed it, but Netflix gave Bong control, allowing him to make something shocking and profound. Okja should’t be missed and Netflix should be thanked.

Directed by Bong Joon Ho
Written by Bong Joon Ho and Jon Ronson
Starring Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, and Seo-Hyun Ahn
Rated TV-MA / R
On Netflix and in select theaters


The train to nowhere is the only train

For the last year, much of the discussion of Snowpiercer focused on the public fight between director Joon-ho Bong and Harvey Weinstein, the independent film mogul and owner of the Weinstein Company, which has the distribution rights to the film in the United States. Weinstein wanted the acclaimed version film seen overseas cut and, according to some reports, a voiceover added. This immediately caused ripples among the film community, because it was the added voiceover and happy ending to the original cut of Blade Runner that enraged so many people, particularly its director Ridley Scott. And Snowpiercer, Bong’s first English-language film and full of international stars, is considered by some to be as important a film as Scott’s 1981 masterpiece; time will tell on that end, but those fans are not crazy to make that prediction. Bong, the great Korean director of the modern classics The Host, Mother, and Memories of Murder, prevailed, and Weinstein released the original cut to select theaters. It’s an astonishing film, breathtaking in its visuals, bleak in its plot, and enraging in its refusal to do what most American audiences expect from their science fiction action films.

The film is set in 2031, 17 years after an attempt to fix global warming goes horribly wrong, freezing the planet and killing all life. All life except for those who made it onto a long, high-tech train on a constant circumnavigation of the planet. The train was built by a visionary inventor named Wilford, who predicted the environmental calamity and manages the miraculous engine that keeps the train moving and its inhabitants alive. While the train features greenhouses, a fish farm, livestock, a school, restaurants, clubs, these luxuries are available only to the riders in the front of the train.

In the back, the riders live in squalor, surviving on blocks of mysterious, rubbery protein and subject to the violent whims of Wilford’s brutal security forces who steal the riders’ children and freeze the limbs off riders brave enough to fight back. These tail riders are plotting a revolution at the beginning of the film, with Curtis (Chris Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and the tail riders’ de facto leader Gilliam (John Hurt) trying to find the best moment to push through to the other cars, past the security forces and their absurd, saccharine chief, Mason (Tilda Swinton). When they do, recruiting the drug-addicted engineer Namgoong (Song Kang-ho) and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung) to open the doors, things get very bloody, and as they pass through the various cars, very weird. As the film progresses, the critique of caste-like hierarchies and fascistic social manipulation becomes explicit and uncomfortable. Don’t expect a Hollywood resolution, since Bong has always refused happy endings.

While the plot and themes are bleak and get only bleaker, Bong’s trademark mix of humor and horror manage to make the process entertaining. The fights scenes are gorgeously shot by cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong, if Bong’s use of slow motion violence is perhaps clichéd at this point, even when filmed with such care and skill. The art direction of the different cars – from concentration camp filth to baroque splendor – is a marvel, and Stefan Kovacik will undoubtedly find himself nominated for various awards at the end of the year. The screenplay that Bong and Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) adapted from the graphic novel of the same name is smart and unnerving, but it is not seemless, as the plot holes appear if you think about it for too long. The acting is more consistent. Evans gives a wrenching, horrific speech at the end of the film that towers over anything he’s ever done before, while Song, the star of Memories of Murder, and Go, the heart of The Host, are both thrilling in their confused desperation. Spencer, Bell, and Hurt do great character work; it’s fantastic to see Spencer, an Oscar winner for playing a vengeful maid, as an action hero. Swinton’s performance, however, is the most memorable, not only because of the mannered speech and creepy dentures, but also for her communication of banal, mercenary evil.


Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Written by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson
Starring Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, and Tilda Swinton
Rated R
At Reading Gaslamp and AMC La Jolla