Love & Slaughter — Bong Joon-ho’s Okja

When we talk about animals in movies, there are usually two images that come to mind: a best friend, like My Dog Skip or Marley and Me, and a dangerous predator à la Jaws. Our fictional images of them reflect our relationships with them. They are our companions or our aggressors. They are our downfall or our victims.

In the case of Okja, they fall into the latter category.

Bong Joon-ho’s latest is a strange fable of animal companionship. Babe but set in a world on the brink of rule by Orwellian-esque conglomerates. But instead of being separate from reality, Okja is based on a premise terribly close to where we find ourselves now: searching for a way to feed a booming population while reducing our carbon footprint on the planet. The solution? Genetically-modified organisms. A multi-national chemical company called Mirando Corporation has created the answer to everyone’s prayers: giant mammals called superpigs that are cute, leave minimal carbon footprint, and will apparently taste delicious once they reach full growth and are harvested for their meat. Coinciding with the announcement of this miracle pig, the Mirando Corporation also beings a ten-year contest, where farmers around the world will raise 23 of the babies to determine one winner as the best superpig.

One farmer in South Korea is given a superpig. The superpig is given the name Okja and grows up with a girl named Mija.

Okja and Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn). Photo source.

The majority of the movie revolves around Mija’s quest to save Okja from the Mirando Corporation, but along the way Bong delivers so much satire that you could pick and choose where you want to read it. Biting social commentary is a bit a signature for Bong. We also saw it in the fantastic post-apocalyptic film Snowpiercer, in which a class system emerges on a train driving non-stop around a frozen earth. In Okja, the first target is companies such as the Mirando Corporation, who create gimmicky campaigns and contests to detract from the harm their company may actually cause. The second target is us, people who cry fear of GMOs but are able to shut down those concerns for delicious, questionably sourced food constantly. The parallels are undeniable, especially since Okja doesn’t take place in a vague future like Snowpiercer does. It is set in today. Literally now, in 2017, and while the conditions Okja is placed in the movie are purposefully manipulated to draw maximum sympathy, the similarities between the conditions in Okja and those within our current factory farming cannot be denied.

Tilda Swinton as Lucy Mirando and Seo-Hyun Ahn as Mija. Photo source.

We get to know Okja. The huge mammal is, in a word, odd and, in another, adorable. Within the first few minutes of the film you’re able to get over the fact you’re seeing a giant, CGI, hippo-pig hybrid-thing on your small laptop screen. After that, you love her. Okja’s animation is stunning. Every movement she makes, every twitch and blink, is placed with such precision and detail. It seems as though some of her mannerisms are dog-like, while her eyes express human-like intelligence and emotion. It’s easy to get attached, both to her and Mija, played by the outstanding Seo-Hyun Ahn.

Seo-Hyun Ahn as Mija. Photo source

While Okja the animal is marvellous, Seo-Hyun Ahn is the true star of the show. She gives a performance that, in my opinion, is more notable than Tilda Swinton’s turn as the high-strung CEO of Mirando Corporation, or Jake Gyllenhaal’s as a boozy, washed-up nature show host. I could watch a two-hour film of just Mija and Okja in the South Korean mountains without a problem. Bong takes his time in the Korea sequences, making use of the gorgeous landscape. These shots are languid and soft, but as soon as the story moves to Seoul and New York, the cinematography takes on the same frenetic pace as the plot. Bong makes use of everything within a scene: from a young woman taking a selfie while a giant pig is chased through a mall to the employees in a corporate office being totally duplicitous but also blindly faithful. The potential for satire is enormous and Bong gladly delivers.

Okja is a surprising movie in a number of ways. There are shocking moments of violence and cruelty, gleefully dry and dark humour, and a conclusion in which no one turns out to be “the good guys” except Mija and Okja. There is a clear divide between “them” (Mirando) and “us” (Mija and the Animal Liberation Front), but the animal rights activists don’t emerge entirely unscathed either, with moments of hypocrisy, deceit, and self-righteousness within the group. Mija and Okja are the true heroes of the story and to the audience, the most redeemable characters. There’s a possible reading into that, the idea that only animals and children are safe from the inevitable selfishness and violence that plague humanity.

Mija and Okja. Photo source.

Okja is full of meaning and criticism. It makes judgements on our current ways of life and questions how we got to this point of resource depletion, the ethics of factory farming where animals are put under conditions that are terrible at best. Okja doesn’t offer any answers or solutions, but it makes you think and that in and of itself is an achievement. It’ll entertain you, just like any movie should and needs to in order to be seen. That being said, once you turn on Okja, it’s hard to turn it off, and it’s hard to forget both the giant superpig and everything she represents.

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The American Dream: The Bad Batch Review

It’s common, while watching Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch, to have the thought, “yep, I just saw that.” This statement could refer to a number of things. It could refer to brief moments of intense gore, ridiculously beautiful cinematography, or bemusement at the sheer camp stumbled upon in an otherwise brutal and dry story.

You could call The Bad Batch a survivalist movie. You could call it a cautionary tale. You could call it a love story, though I’m personally ambivalent towards that reading. It’s a terribly simple movie that’s also terribly strange. If Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night was Iranian noir, then The Bad Batch is sunburnt Americana — the most cliché American characteristics stretched out to their maximum and stripped down to their basest levels.

At its core, The Bad Batch is about Arlene (model-turned-actress Suki Waterhouse) getting cast out into the desert as one of ‘the Bad Batch’, people deemed not rich, healthy, contributing or just good enough for America. Once in the desert, she’s immediately kidnapped by cannibals and loses an arm and a leg to their meals. She escapes, is found by a scavenger and brought to a makeshift town called Comfort, where other Bad Batch castoffs try to survive with the help of The Dream (a cultish Keanu Reeves.)

Suki Waterhouse as Arlen in The Bad Batch. Photo source.

Those in Comfort are fuelled by The Dream’s drugs and his nighttime desert raves. Comfort is filled with satirical images America — from the raver decked out in a Statue of Liberty costume to a one-legged pole dancer wearing a big t-shirt with an American flag bikini on it. Everywhere there are signs referring to The Dream, be it the drug or the man — clear references to The American Dream —, that pointed fingers at America, saying “this is what you want” or “this is who you are.” It’s not subtle, but little in this movie is, save for the sparse use of dialogue, something I’m beginning to consider as an Amirpour technique, just like her long takes and rack focus.

Keanu Reeves as The Dream in The Bad Batch. Photo source.

In the first twenty minutes of the film, barely any words are said. The audience is left to parse through what they can see to try and figure out what the hell is going on and why people are being forced out into the desert. While hosting a rave, The Dream paints a clearer picture of a post-apocalyptic world that likely doesn’t have the resources for its entire population. The survivalist aspect of the film combined with the desert setting does give off a Western vibe, much like A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night did. Both films have female protagonists, in place of a John Wayne type of character, battling their enemies and they are neither perfect nor nice. They are both killers and they are both alone. Or at least, they’re alone until a guy steps in.

Jason Momoa as Miami Man in The Bad Batch. Photo source.

When I was first looking into the film, I saw that it was described as a love story. This was confusing to me both before and after watching the movie. The love story here is one between Arlen and one of the cannibals, Miami Man (Jason Momoa trying out a Spanish accent for a cuban character). Arlen and Miami Man are brought together by Miami Man’s search for his daughter, Honey, who was taken by The Dream after Arlen brought her to Comfort. Momoa is as brooding and hunky as ever, and maybe I’m just traditional, but I would be hesitant to start romancing with a fella that may or may not have eaten part of my leg for dinner.

How you want to define The Bad Batch is entirely up to you. I personally liked it. However, the two hours of a lot of walking and not a lot of talking garnered mixed reviews from the public. In that bleak desert and with so little speech, the audience is left with an uncomfortable amount of space and silence where they must sit with their thoughts. It leaves so much open to interpretation, so many questions unanswered in this short timeline that barely scratches the surface of the dystopian world it inhabits. In that space we could also find what the movie is and what it might be expected to be.

What it is not is an action-packed thriller. It is not a love story, or a comedy, or even a drama. It’s not a blockbuster, but not a complete indie-house movie either. It plays at being an examination of the human condition in dehumanizing environments when the characters themselves let so little of their person be revealed to each other, let alone the audience.

So what is The Bad Batch? 

I’m viewing it more as an experiment — of what could happen in a very near future, of how we would react to something like that happening, and how we react as an audience to a movie like this that doesn’t sit comfortably into any genre and doesn’t give the audience exactly what they want.

Whether opinions on the film are good or bad, I see Amirpour as a strong directorial voice. As this is only her sophomore feature film release, I’m keen to see what else she has in store and where else she may take us.

The Bad Batch is now playing in select cinemas and is available on iTunes and Amazon. Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Paralyzed by a Heavy Heart: Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta

Image Credit: IMDB

Stories involving the heavy consciences of women and the consequences of reckless actions done by men, seem to be an endless gulf of inspiration for Pedro Almodovar, as they are constantly revisited in his works. Yet it rarely, if ever, feels like he has mined all the original or emotionally deep material regarding such subjects that he can, as he is able to consistently inject new life into themes already visited. Julieta, Almodovar’s twentieth film, is thematically similar to All about My Mother, Volver, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. But, it still manages to ask questions about certain family dynamics in a way that is fresh and interesting, while also displaying certain stylistic capabilities that we don’t often see from the director, making it a noteworthy inclusion into his filmography, and certainly one that is worthy of a rewatch or three.

This film, an adaptation of three short stories by Alice Munro, focuses on the title character (initially played by Emma Suarez) living a comfortable life in Madrid with her long-term partner. She is planning on moving with him to Portugal, until she has a brief encounter with a person from her past — an old friend of her daughter Antia, who mysteriously disappeared twelve years earlier.   This friend gives her a quick update on the daughter’s life, who according to her is happily married with children. As a result, Julieta is then prompted to stay in Madrid, leases out the apartment where Antia was raised — as it’s her mother’s last known mailing address to Antia — and proceeds to write a lengthy journal entry, detailing all the secrets and revelations that eventually lead to their estrangement. Thus, confronted with this unfinished business from her past, she finds that she is no longer able to move forward in the life she remade for herself.

Image Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

As the film progresses, it becomes clear that above all else, Almodovar is most fascinated here with the themes of death and its’ relation to maternal guilt — which during the most devastating moments of the film proves to be a powerful and disrupting force. Moments that forward such ideas are presented with a nearly Hitchcockian level of eeriness and sense of foreboding, which will likely stay with the audience following the film, as it is not only very palpable, but also effectively emphasizes the mental unrest of the Julieta character, during both timelines. One can easily get a sense of who Almodovar is taking visual inspiration from with this particular film, but it never feels like he is needlessly mimicking another person’s style. By using familiar cinematic cues often used with regularity in thrillers or melodramas, to tell an at-times quietly tragic story, the film feels innovative and lively.  As though he is a cinematic master with the confidence to display some narrative styles he knows will work for this story, just doesn’t use them often elsewhere.

While Julieta is writing in her journal, we are given flashbacks to her younger self, played captivatingly by Adriana Ugarte, which largely outline the relationship between her and her husband.   During these segments, many such unsettling and resonant moments occur that keeps the audience in a state of tantalizing confusion that proves gripping throughout.

One such scene involves a man on a train sitting opposite Julieta, who asks her to keep him company, and eventually has a tragic demise which Julieta feels guilty for. Another moment comes when the couple’s maid, Marian, warns Julieta that if she chooses to go back to work, as opposed to continuing to be at home, she is at risk of allowing her family to fall apart.   They’re dark signs of things to come, equally  regarding the plot and the character’s own mental state, which Almodovar uses to address questions that progress throughout the film in different ways and from different perspectives.   Do men choose to act out in times of stress, in ways that inadvertently places blame on women? Do women commonly end up carrying emotionally heavy loads regarding events that are ultimately not their fault? And as more turns of events occur, one is left to wonder what he is saying as to whether there is a stronger familial obligation among one sex than another, with a recurring motif of a faceless, male, clay statue being present in many scenes. It is surely no stretch of the imagination to think it may be a source of some interesting interpretations.

Image Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

There are however, some leaps of logic that the film takes pertaining to how some of the characters choose to act following certain revelations. Such an issue is commonplace among some of the director’s best works (after all, he recently said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that he has in the past taken two or three of his stories and combined moments from them to write a screenplay, as a way to find interesting twists). But the ideas raised regarding family dynamics are interesting enough that it is mostly forgivable.

Almodovar also displays more restraint here than many of his other films. Long, lingering shots of characters slowly, internally coming apart at the seams are used to great affect, and effectively tighten the uncoiled tension that he rarely chooses to release. And the performances by the two main actresses are stellar. Ugarte subtly displays moments where she is in a fog of sadness or disbelief while desperately trying to keep her bearings surrounding the situations presented to her, and Suarez’s depiction of an older Julieta — that of a woman who has reinvented herself but is still psychologically delicate — shows more layers as the story moves forward. Together, the character feels fully realized. A strong woman who feels great weight in her heart, making her vulnerable, yet still tenacious in her desire to reach catharsis. As such, the uplifting but slightly ambiguous conclusion feels right. The choices of people, even the ones we love most, may always be a mystery to us, with the only things that will bring understanding being time and experience. And even then, one must be content with being somewhat unknowing.

None of the questions he presents to us are neatly resolved, but the journey is quite haunting and is ultimately an optimistic outlook of life. As a result, Almodovar presents familiar subject matter and creates a character study that contains moments that rival the psychological depth of some of his best works.

Julieta is currently playing at the Tiff Bell Lightbox.

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