Korean creativity and a couple of top western stars have combined for one of the year’s most
endearing films, writes Helen Barlow
AS THE battle waged regarding Netflix’s right to show movies in the Cannes competition, the streaming giant brought in some of the festival’s biggest stars to talk up their films. Even if Dustin Hoffman missed out on a prize, the 79-year-old actor is being touted for an Oscar nomination for his work in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories; while in Okja, a hippopotamus-sized pig and a 13-year-old year Korean girl steal the show from the likes of Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal.
A mix of monster movie, coming-of-age fable, and satire on the GM food industry, Okja stars An Seo Hyun as Mija, a 14-year-old orphan living with her grandfather in the mountainous South Korean countryside where her only friend is the cute and cuddly Okja, one of 27 super-sized pigs engineered by the Mirando Corporation.
When Mirando CEO, Lucy Mirando (Swinton), recalls Okja to the US, Mija comes to the rescue with the help of a group of environmentalist warriors, including one played by The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun, who we also hear speaking Korean.
Directed by Bong Joon Ho (The Host, Mother) Okja is vastly different from the South Korean director’s underrated English-language debut Snowpiercer where Swinton likewise played a maniac in power (mostly inspired as a mix of Thatcher and Hitler) as she does here.
“The characters actually depend on Tilda’s own inspiration,” notes the jovial director, who clearly likes a good laugh. “The names that were frequently mentioned for Lucy were... ” he hesitates, “...Trump and Ivanka.”
Why is he afraid to say that?
“I was so scared,” he chortles, noting that they even upped the ante during the post-production. “There was the election in the United States and our post production supervisor Luca Borghese, an American guy, was in Seoul and he was in a panic. He said he’d emigrate to Canada but he didn’t. In ADR [automatic dialog replacement] sessions with Tilda we revised some of the lines and tried to add a more political feel. She tried various voices that sounded like Trump — she always asked, ‘Does it sound more like Trump?’”
As a Korean native, Bong had other things on his mind, calling the local political climate “much more dynamic”. Their ex president has already been impeached, and currently languishes in a Seoul prison.
In Okja, the biggest star is Jake Gyllenhaal, whose highly pitched TV wildlife presenter Dr Johnny Wilcox, is about as far from a superhero as you can get.
“I drew on a number of different animal show hosts that director Bong had shared with me,” Gyllenhaal recalls. “When we chose the shorts there was nowhere to go but over the top. Johnny’s always performing in front of everyone, because of his desperation for attention — and then his loss of that attention.”
Gyllenhaal famously comes from a left-leaning politically-inclined family, including his actress sister Maggie and filmmaker parents Naomi Foner and Stephen Gyllenhaal. He has been particularly outspoken on social and ecological issues and has taught inner-city kids about sustainable farming and healthy eating.
“We have a responsibility as artists,” notes Gyllenhaal. “With a fantasy film like Okja, while it’s highly entertaining, it also allows you to go deeper inside someone’s mind. When someone sits down in the dark, much like when we close our eyes at night, it’s important to communicate something that has substance. Hopefully when we wake up or come out of that room, it has us looking at the world in a different way.”
Bong has been a fan of the movies of Japanese animation maestro Hayao Miyazaki since childhood and the influence is evident in Okja, particularly in the country setting. “I grew up with him talking about life, nature and the relationship with capitalism,” he says.
He was also inspired by the early work of Steven Spielberg, particularly Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET. and Jaws. He says the film was a coalescence of influences.
“It wasn’t made to be some sort of activist movie or propaganda movie, it was made as a beauty project. I don’t want to convert everyone to veganism after watching this film. Mija likes chicken stew. She’s just like our ordinary selves. We have a lovely puppy in our house but at lunchtime we eat steak.”
Gyllenhaal grew up with pets and loves them. “I have a dog and I had a dog before my now dog,” he explains. “I think with this movie everyone can be reminded about how much they love their animals that they live with, especially when Okja’s laying on her back and smiles affectionately. My dog sleeps upside down so that reminded me of him.”
While Okja is a CGI creation (by Erik-Jan De Boer, who won an Oscar for creating the tiger in Life of Pi) on the set there was a substitute puppet rig comprised of component parts sculpted from grey foam. It was a big help, notes Gyllenhaal.
“You interacted with pieces of Okja all the time. There were three or four different pieces that were being moved and if you pushed on Okja, Okja would sort of push back on you.”
The thing that comes as perhaps the biggest shock is Dr Johnny’s shrill voice that recalls comedic characters in Asian sitcoms.
“It was a collaboration with director Bong,” notes Gyllenhaal. “One of the first things he said to me was that this voice was very specific. He drew me a picture of a guitar and pointed to the top end saying, ‘That’s where his voice is’. On the first day of shooting he acted it out for me and he was ‘Ahhh!’” Gyllenhaal shrieks at a high pitch, mimicking his director.
Gyllenhaal, most recently seen in Nightcrawler and Nocturnal Animals, likes a challenge. Ever since his attempt at a Hollywood hero tanked in Prince of Persia, he has mostly pursued clever and interesting dramatic roles. Certainly he cannot be categorised.
“When I was younger maybe there was a sense of presentation of someone that I thought I should be,” he explains, “but then you spend enough time with yourself and enough time in front of people to realise that if you’re lucky enough to continue to do what I’m doing, that you just show yourself and it’s the best way to be. I think that’s the general evolution of growing up anyway.
“What was nice about this role was Bong allowing me to be so big and mad. It takes a sense of security because so often you make choices as an actor and subtlety is sometimes a lot easier than going for it.”
Okja debuts on Netflix on Wednesday, June 28
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