Film Analysis: How Okja Shows Us Rising Emotional Decadence

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. 

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Middle Name

One day, or

Most of the days, I’ll 

Walk out of that door without saying 

A word

Not to you; not to myself, I’ll

Take my old leather satchel and that pair of blue denim

On me, And 

Maybe, 

I’ll leave the door half open, or 

Half closed. 

Those will be the days when you won’t

See a much of me or what

You think was made 

Of me, you

Will not wake up to what you had of me for

So many years, or months

You might hear a little humming for a while, but

Maybe that neither. 

One day, or

Those ‘most’ of the days,

When you see me leave, or just realise it,

Please remember that I 

didn’t leave from what I thought I didn’t want, but

For what I don’t have, or I

have but I don’t know

I’ll be gone,

I hope not for long

Not for the end or the start

But for the middle,

Of self 

 

Conversations: On Internal Conflicts and How I Perceive Them

He: Why did you disconnect the call for like 5 minutes? Was there something important? 

Me: No, no! I just had to go to the terrace. I didn’t feel right talking to you with a roof over my head. It just didn’t seem right. 

He: Well..! So, where do you place yourself mentally? How’s everything going?

Me: Well, I’m conflicted as usual! A part of me can’t wait to go back to Pune and start the new semester the way I want to. But, a part of me also wants to stay away even from a glimpse of anything remotely college. The funny part is that I’m aware of the existence of these conflicts within me but I still can’t do anything to resolve them

He: I think it shows your maturity as a person. In your case, knowing that the conflicts exist is mostly an exciting thing for it gives you challenges to prepare for. Something that I know you so passionately adore.

Me: Aaaah… Well, I would put it differently. Earlier, when I had a lack of self-understanding, these conflicts were more like temporary baits that used to lure me and sway my attention towards them; only for me to realise the depravity I felt afterwards. I was unaware of the fickle nature of my overambitious head and that made me feel extremely devastated at times. I was clueless about the reasons behind the things that were happening to me. But now, after years of learning about self, I am at least aware of the nature of these dispensations and the fact that they exist. I know that I as an entity is different from the conflicts that I carry within and thus I should be minimally affected by them. 

He: So you think it works for you somehow?

Me: Kinda! Like now knowing this fact about myself has changed the entire matrix of mental response to the rise of such internal conflicts. As I see them as periodic but inevitable guests of my overly ambitious conscience, I see myself dwelling in peace and calmness whenever such conflicts arise. I no longer panic or enter this horrid phase of self-doubt. I as an individual is above the inhibitions in my psyche. This is a very empowering yet peaceful understanding that I’ve acquired. 

Probably the reason why I’m having this conversation about my internal conflicts while taking a stroll on my terrace with a beautiful blue sky over my head and the chirps of migratory birds dispelling the evening silence speaks volumes about how I see my conflicts. The nature around me is a metaphorical representation of how I feel on the inside – big, calm and purposeful.  

The Monologue

Don’t let me look away from

The gaze I 

Phase out to, you know

If I do, I would know

I would know why the stars fall into

The shapes they do when

we stare up at the sky; together, I would 

Know, you know, that when my

Eyes widen and that smile starts to 

Creep onto my sideway 

Looking face, you know

I know 

You fucked up, but in a funny way

If I could, you know that 

I would,

Look back at least once when I’m walking away from you, you

Know that all I’ll see with my

Longing eyes is your back, moving away

From me.

If I’m moving in a certain direction and I’m

Faceless against the wind, you know

I wouldn’t want to be understood or 

Put under the quilts of someone’s

Love forsaken warmth, but

You know, 

Or at least you did

That if I ever look sideways in a sudden jerk

Of my face with my eyes widened and

That smile creeping onto my

Funnily paused face, that

I know the truth

It came to me as a sudden realisation and what pain it is

That you won’t know, ever

To not to see the same

In your eyes. 

 

The ‘Little’ Ones

If the little world gets too messy,

The little people will wail,

I will see you,

Walking past the 

Last man standing, of,

This little worn out town

I still hear the

Birds singing, the 

Little stars still flicker as

I refuse to blink, and

The night refuses to go

On this little patch of suburban property, 

All I see, are

Your giant footprints, Oh! 

Your big car never

Coming back to these little unquiet streets, So

Will not be seen, 

Your big big smile 

What if

My dried up eyes look upwards and

Find the little blue sky

Shrinking?

There’s music so unusual, so little, so small

What if you never call

Your big big life, Your big

Big flight, moving over

My little, 

Little,

Heart

 

 

Oasis

I measure freedom with the

Stretch of my

Hands, my palms facing the  

Sky, fingers  

Stretched.  

I dance today in my stillness, I fly

With the winds unseen, I give up on the

Retreating rays of sun, in the sky, 

All I see, 

Is Blue.  

I whirl my storms in an utmost peace, the

Silence sings my fortunes

I flow through

My trajectories in every sip of 

My tea

Take me nowhere, but here

Take me somewhere, but there

I dawn my light in 

This evening,

See love,

In nothing

And everything

Little Broken Hearts

Little broken hearts, tonight

strut across the busy streets; fleets and fleets

of lost souls 

Illuminating into a thousand colours as

The yellow flicker lights dance

Upon their bewildered heads

When you see me out there tonight, I 

will be just a face in the crowd

Not rolling along with, but 

marching across

With this army walking the Odysseus’s journey

Together, but alone.  

From Have-Nots to Havelock: Understanding the Alternative ‘Now’ of Life

Between ‘one pint down’ and ‘thinking about another’, a conversation happened. Like most of my social outings, I didn’t exactly plan to meet the other party to that conversation, but I guess it happened for good; or, it could not have happened any other way.

Sitting on a jute mat at a quiet Naga café, the guy across the table carried a life story that was very fascinating. In a capsule, he got drunk one night, booked a ticket to Andaman Islands with his friends and then never came back home. As much horrific it sounds at this juncture, the follow-up is just so dreamlike. He fell in love with the scenic nature of the Islands and decided to settle down there. To his good fortunes, he immediately got a job at a tourism agency with a humble pay for which he bade goodbye to his job in the States. Five years fast forward, he’s now a diving coach at Havelock Island (Andaman), has a girlfriend and is still dwelling in a small studio apartment where he comes back to sleep after his enchanting tryst with nature.

Now, with this sort of a lifestyle set as a premise, there wasn’t much left for me to boast about my life – a law student surviving on optimism and slugging through competition. However, I did feel a little hit in my wits (maybe because of that second pint that I finally decided to take) that made me think the other way; to see through the romantic construction of his life. It may have been anything else, but as of now, I think it was that one thing that he said during that conversation that caused the hit – how it feels like to live in the ‘now’.

A remote island 1220 km away from south-east Indian coast, Havelock Island is a much neglected, strategically significant and naturally gifted Indian territory in the Andaman Sea. This faraway land is much closer to nature’s bounty; devoid of accessible mobile or internet connections. It is in this environment that this friend of mine found a home like nowhere. He said that it is like living in the ‘now’; detached from the strings of past and future. The only access to the news about the ‘parallel universe’ comes from a newspaper brought to him once a month by foreigners working in his organisations who get a permit for only 30 days and need to return to their respective countries once in every month. So, it is the music of the winds and the vistas of the stretched out sea that entraps his conscience for the longest duration of time – a form of liberation, as he puts it.

Does that mean that the life I lead or is led by some of the people that I know is not lived in this idea of ‘now’? And, is it even worth harping about? Well, to each its own, can be a possible answer. However, to me, it looks more like an excuse than an explanation. So I thought more closely about it and did come across with certain explanations.

There are two ways one might feel like living a life of this diving coach from Havelock. First, it is a natural calling motivated by one’s deepest understanding of self or coming to know of the same. Second, the romantic construction of such a life in one’s head, more like a reference group, without understanding the correlation of the same with one’s understanding of self. I think for my friend, it was the first case that motivated his decision; even though I don’t know much about him. However, to a lot of people, it may be a motivation falling under the second category.

The information we receive about these referential lifestyles is mostly asymmetrical. We often tend to focus on the broader bright side of such stories to feed the voids existing in the understanding of our own life. This is how we create some sort of a mental equilibrium (or at least try to do so) by feeding hope and aspirations to an apathetic conscience. ‘Grass is always greener on the other side’ is a phrase generating from the similar mental construction. There are many philosophers and movies that have vividly romanticised this idea of ultimate liberation – a detachment from all possible human connections that take us away from nature. But is it the only form of liberation available or is it just a form of resignation disguised as one? I would say, it’s neither.

Nature itself asks to move away from structural and linear interpretations of life. The constant movement and mutations of smallest of cells is a reflection of the degree of diversity we are capable of. So, in this particular understanding of nature, the liberation and the lifestyle as fashioned by my diver friend becomes ‘one’ of the many choices available. Something which is neither smaller nor larger than the life we naturally desire to live and not romanticises about. It requires a much deeper and honest understanding of self to differentiate between the one wanted and the one fancied. So, the diving coach doesn’t live in the ‘only now’; rather, he lives in the ‘alternative now’ and so do we.

If I’m a person who seeks to outgrow his space and predictabilities associated with his identity, I’m a person of movement and not resignation. For me, liberation lies not in finding solace in a static life closer to nature but optimising my potential and energies in understanding the diversity this nature offers. This doesn’t put the orientation opposite to mine in a less important pedestal. It just gives me space and authority to respect and love the alternatives that I wish to choose for myself. There’s no pitting one ‘now’ against the other. It is about recognising self and nurturing it within the various alternatives of ‘now’.

So, as we bade goodbye to each other and I headed for an eagerly awaited family function, I settled my bill and scribbled a little note for my diver friend that read –

“I would love to walk your land, or the only land you know. I would love to wrap my head around the liberation that you understand. But I will soon grow different and might want to sail away. For the island that brought me liberation once, might also bring rising waves within that hit the rocks hard and then retreat back to the sea, defeated.’