Bong Joon Ho on Why He Chose a Pig for ‘Okja’, Working with Netflix
Bong Joon Ho‘s Okja had a rapturous debut at Cannes amongst critics (read our review, here). But due to its stature as a Netflix original film it was unofficially barred by the Jury from receiving any awards. Because Netflix isn’t pursuing a theatrical release in France, the President of the esteemed film festival nearly pulled both Netflix films in competition (Okja and Noah Baumbach‘s The Meyerowitz Stories). Though they screened (and received some of the best reviews from the festival), the Jury held steadfast on the prediction that they would not reward any of the streaming service’s films. Despite this future-of-cinema conversation, the streaming distributor has offered Bong much more creative control than his English-language debut, Snowpiercer, where he had a constant battle with The Weinstein Company over the cut. Indeed, he’s quite pleased with his experience this go-round and that freedom will only make Netflix more enticing for filmmakers.
Due to the brazen go-for-broke adventure stylings of Bong’s film, it likely would have struggled to find a foothold for awards that generally go to very grounded and piercing works anyhow. But Okja is piercing, nonetheless. The adventure concerns an evil corporation (headed by Tilda Swinton with Giancarlo Esposito as her steady advisor/adversary) that faces the public by showing their good intentions of attempting to feed the world through a method of absurd pageantry that hides the truth to how that’s being done. Mirando Corp. has publicly given their genetically manufactured “super pigs” to farmers in various parts of the world to raise for ten years, promising to reward the family who raises the biggest and best pig. The winner of this competition is a young South Korean girl named Mija (An Seo-Hyun) and her pig, Okja. When the spokesman for the Corp. (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes to her sleepy countryside to take her away for good, Mija travels to Seoul and New York City in an attempt to return her best friend to her home (with the help of members of the Animal Liberation Army, played by Paul Dano, Lily Collins, Steven Yeun and Devon Bostick).
Along the way, Bong skewers corporate greed, celebrity, the rigorous debates for pure intentions that come inherent to activism and even internment camps. It’s a fun adventure with heady topics.
Recently I got the chance to sit down and chat with Bong about how this story spiraled out to include so many different types of modern fears, how Netflix came to partner on the film and what he’s doing as a follow-up. When I walked in the room he told me with a big smile that Collider was his favorite website and recalled showing our own Steven Weintraub early sketches for Snowpiercer at Sundance years ago. Our interview after that friendly aside is below.
[Note: Most of this interview was done directly with Bong in English, but occasionally he would use a translator for sections of answers that he could answer better in Korean; his full answers including translated asides are below.]
COLLIDER: There are so many ideas in this film. Globalization, celebrities, even refugee camps. I was wondering where did it start and how did it spiral into all of these big topics?
BONG JOON HO: It was just a kind of simple chain reaction. Well, we cannot call it simple [laughs] but anyways…the beginning was simple. It was stuff from the image of an animal. I just imagined a very big animal, but with such a sad face. My first question was: why does that lovely animal look so sad? What makes her suffer? Why is she so big?
We always have two perspectives when we look at animals. There is one perspective where we look at it in a friendly way or we treat it as family, and there’s one perspective where we treat it as food. Having such a big sized animal, I thought it would be related more to food. I created the character first from the perspective of family and friend. The life activist, those kind of people on this side. The other side, they see this creature as food, so they make this animal big, so there some G.M. [genetic modification] involved. The G.M. aspect of it derived from the fact that the animal was so big. For example, in reality there are scientists who have succeeded in creating a G.M. salmon, and it’s big, and because of it’s size I thought that maybe Okja, this creature, too, had some sort of G.M. aspect to it. Also this means that there must be some big corporation. A small company cannot do that kind of project. There is a big company to make this animal. Maybe the CEO, Tilda [Swinton], continues that process.
Why a pig?
BONG: So many animals exist, but there is no animal that we associate with food more than a pig [laughs]. I feel very sorry for pigs for saying that this is what they are supposed to be. When we imagine pigs, we imagine jerky or sausage or ham, but in reality, pigs are very sensitive, clean, lovely and smart. There are even instances where people have domesticated pigs as pets.
I am curious about the character names of the animal liberators, J and K. I was wondering if that’s an allusion to Men in Black. Then you have the colors [Red, Silver, Blond] maybe as an allusion to Reservoir Dogs? I was wondering if that was something that you were playing with.
BONG: I actually never thought about Reservoir Dogs, but now I’m starting to think about it and I love it [laughs]. But ALF is a real organization that still exists and has existed through recent history. I actually met three ALF members during research and that’s how they seem to go about their business…it’s funny about these people, they never openly admit that they’re ALF members, they always say that they support the cause. The interesting thing is that one of these people I met spent two and a half years in prison for trying to rescue an animal. Considering this he probably was a member. They never actually reveal their real names within the group, so I named them with their hair colors: Red, Blond, Silver. And because Steven Yeun’s character is a Korean translator, he’s just named K [laughs].
Can you talk about about what it was like working with Plan B [Entertainment] after Snowpiercer when the release had some issues and Plan B came in and, it seems like, let you make exactly what you wanted to make.
BONG: I first met Plan B a long time ago-2007 in LA-and they suggested a lot of original source material to me. It was a very light relationship. It was right after I was done with my film The Host and Jeremy and Brad Pitt from Plan B were fans. I also really admired their filmography. They do lots of cavalier films such as 12 Years a Slave. So it was a natural mix between Plan B and I. But even before Plan B came on board the casting casting and effects of the film were already packaged nicely through the Korean producers and the American producer, Dooho Choi. Plan B came slightly later on and because they had a good relationship with Netflix via War Machine, they introduced Netflix to the film and they were fully supportive of Okja. It was a very smooth transition all around so I am very happy.
The Host begins with the American company just saying “dump everything down the drain”. This one is behind the scenes but it has very similar effect…it’s all this pageantry around it as if they’re doing something good when really they’re just dumping things down the drain, as well. Were you wanting to explore that idea in a different way?
BONG: This time I want to portray that idea via Tilda, who plays two roles. With Nancy Mirado, like in The Host, I wanted to be very explicit with the violence that she inflicts. Whereas Lucy Mirado, she tries to differ from Nancy. She thinks that she’s more elegant, more eco-friendly; she’s more obsessed with the marketing aspect of it and how it looks on the exterior. Nevertheless, the winner within the Mirando group is Nancy, not Lucy, and I think that reflects my concerns and fears about the reality of multinational companies within capitalist societies. The more ruthless people almost always seem to take over.
What is next for you?
BONG: It’s a small size, small budget, 100% Korean-language movie. Working with Song Kang-ho, from The Host and some of my other projects. I’m so happy to work with him again. It’s a very crazy, strange story about family. A very weird family. Another one is also small budget, 100% English-language movie based on an American graphic novel. It’s not really known, but it has a cult status. Sometime in the future I will reveal what it is, but currently I’m just thinking about and developing it.
Okja is now available on Netflix and in select theaters. The official synopsis is below.
For 10 idyllic years, young Mija (An Seo Hyun) has been caretaker and constant companion to Okja – a massive animal and an even bigger friend – at her home in the mountains of South Korea. But that changes when a family-owned multinational conglomerate Mirando Corporation takes Okja for themselves and transports her to New York, where image obsessed and self-promoting CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) has big plans for Mija’s dearest friend.
With no particular plan but single-minded in intent, Mija sets out on a rescue mission, but her already daunting journey quickly becomes more complicated when she crosses paths with disparate groups of capitalists, demonstrators and consumers, each battling to control the fate of Okja…while all Mija wants to do is bring her friend home.
Deftly blending genres, humor, poignancy and drama, Bong Joon Ho (Snowpiercer, The Host) begins with the gentlest of premises-the bond between man and animal-and ultimately creates a distinct and layered vision of the world that addresses the animal inside us all.
Okja is a Plan B Entertainment, Lewis Pictures and Kate Street Picture Company production in association with Netflix.
For more on Okja: