Okja is undoubtedly a reflection of Bong-Joon Ho’s evolving auteur. A mouthpiece of environment advocacy shied down by wry humour and avant-garde character design. As any film review would define it, Okja is a story about the journey of a young South Korean girl who fights against all odds to get a genetically enhanced pig which does not belong to her either physically or intellectually. The movie never deviates from its central plot and each shot is quite smartly put to create a fast moving progression of the primary storyline; something which really fuels the existing anticipation. However, despite its strict editorial work, there are few shots in Okja that really stand out for reasons other than the central narrative. These shots are not about Mija (Seo-Hyeon Ahn) or Okja; rather they come across as a didactic commentary on a post-modern understanding of human relationships.
Hayao Miyazaki, a Japanese anime giant, has given us a dreamlike depiction of Mija’s life in the hills. The sounds of running water and breaking branches engulf the viewer in the serenity and simplicity of a life closer to nature. In almost all the shots we see both Okja and Mija developing a personal relationship not between themselves but also with the natural bounty around them; whether it be the giant rock or the flowing streams. We hardly see any sign of modern technology but there is contentment abound. There’s a prevailing of a selfless yet a settled sort of a happiness which is not dramatically over joyous or unnecessarily indulging.
And then we move to Seoul; a city to its every definition. Suddenly, we see panoramic and aerial shots being taken of the herd of people moving towards the railway station – just like the ones showing the hills in the beginning of the movie. These shots sort of reintroduce the viewer to the narrative of the film, maybe emphasising on the shift in the storyline. However, I also see them as a conscious effort on the part of the director to showcase a distinction, and that too of a stark one, between a rural and an urban life. However, this distinction is not just physical but also emotional. The aerial shot of the herd of people moving towards the railway station focus only on the quantity of the subject matter and not the identity. So, we just see a faceless crowd moving uniformly towards a common destination reflecting the growing mechanisation of human activity. This is in complete opposition to the free-moving and unregimented movements of Mija and Okja on the hills.
This regimented and mechanised ‘city-life’ is shown to have a distracting capability of its own. On one hand, we have a determined Mija trying to find a familiar face and on the other, we have an association of beings spatially so close yet empathetically so separated. This brings me to the second most profound didactic theme – alienation.
When Mija reaches the Mirando building in Seoul she is met with a surprisingly empty office and a lot of glass walls. One of these glass walls separated her and the receptionist who then asked Mija to use the telephone placed on the other side of the glass wall to communicate to her, ignoring the most obvious of Mija’s signals. That glass wall represented the alienation that has become a characteristic of the urban milieu where people are more comfortable in communicating digitally. This also stands in contrast with the kind of communication and understanding Mija shared with Okja despite not understanding each other’s language. This sign of digitally induced alienation is also visible in the scene where a girl who is running away from Okja in a supermarket chooses to make a Snapchat video rather than actually experiencing the feeling of being afraid.
Within the scenes of Korea, we see another sign of post-modern emotional deficit – Animal Liberation Front. This sign is very subtle and confusing for it operates in overlapping meanings. Modern day organisations walk the line between being phoney and being relevant. And then sometimes we come across organisations or people who cannot fight a cause until it is contextualised; neither can they connect on emotional levels without putting that connection under a contextualised category. ALF failed to grasp both the emotional simplicity of Mija’s relationship with Okja as well as its own decaying ethos – respecting the animal life. Though their understanding does change in New York when they are faced with some disturbing visuals and an unknown fact from the past, the way they operated as an organisation as a whole does reflect a sort of contextualised understanding of animal rights. Their faith in non-violence and ecological conservation did become a part of Bong’s wry humour but it also reflected as to how modern day organisations have become increasingly normative; vying for immediate short term impact rather than aiming for long term structural changes.
Okja is not a narrative with explicitly enlarged sub-narratives. These sub-narratives are very subtle and can be subjected to interpretations. However, the use of camerawork at certain shots forces a viewer to delve further into the intentions of the director. The central narrative may or may not promote vegetarianism or at least the abandoning of corporate food processing units, but it sure does try to create an awakening about the rising emotional decadence in the digitally connected urban beings.