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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Japanese Theater of Kabuki: Understanding the Existent Invisibles of Life

We often neglect the life led between the realisations of narrowly perceived moments. It’s like we hopscotch from one landmark to another without ever thinking about who draws the line between the two; and why? In this never ending movement of ‘becoming’ we often push much of our life to this interlude that interests no one. In other words, we construct our own invisibilities.

Not much, but some remarkable observations have been made about the existence of this invisibility. No matter how much ironic it may sound, but the phrasing of this phenomenon as existential invisibility rather than a non-existent entity is a deliberate choice. We may rightly force a non-existent thing into oblivion, but doing the same for an existent but unperceived entity calls for some serious consequences. Therefore there have been deliberate attempts to unmask the invisible and one such attempt was conducted by renowned economist Adam Smith in his theory of laissez-faire. However, the so called unmasking doesn’t involve some sort of creating a visible form of the invisibility. Rather, it endeavours to make the invisibility a part of constructive human conscious. As we can see in Smith’s idea of invisible hand, the invisibility is not given a perceivable form but is provided with a characteristic in order to recognise its existence and the effect of the same on our functioning.  

So why is it so significant to not only recognise but consciously understand this existent invisible entity? An answer to this question can be obtained by observing a practice in traditional Japanese theatre of Kabuki. Commencing during the Edo period, Kabuki is an erstwhile avant-garde theatre of Japan which is now seen as a form of classical theatre. Kabuki involves characters staging folktales and ancient Japanese classics while being dressed in elaborately designed kimonos and hair dresses. Since Kabuki is aimed to generate a cathartic feeling within the viewer, the operational activities which are not part of the main narrative are often cloaked in order to avoid distractions. One such operational activity is the job of a group of men called kurogo.

Kurogo are part of the theatrical construction but are not part of the narrative. Their task is to provide props to the actors so that they can perform their roles according to the narrative. So how are these existent invisibles incorporated? Well, kurogos are dressed in all black and their faces are covered with a black veil whenever they appear on the stage. Japanese theatrical convention considers black to be invisible, hence the dress. Kurogos, much like Smith’s invisible hand, provide the actor with all operational needs required to reach/achieve desired moments/goals. Whenever they appear on the stage, the viewer has to neglect their presence and consider them to be non-existent. They are instrumental in actor’s central decision making process. So much so, it would be hard to imagine the fluent movement of the actor’s story without the unrecognised interventions of the kurogos.  

The very practice of kurogos unsettles me to think about our own real lives. Both history and chemistry have proven the causal effect of moments in life. In this world of claiming opportunities, more like seizing them, there is a lot that happens that is often pushed aside as non-existent; as interlude. The movement from one landmark to another is physically impossible without crossing the territory that connects the two. This very territory, coupled with the mental instrumentality of self, constitutes the existent invisible of human beings. This is our kurogo.

Our kurogo doesn’t have a definite shape or form. It manifests itself both as animate and inanimate substances. Sometimes it can be your cab driver who takes you to work everyday without delay or the trees in your neighbourhood that make sure you get enough oxygen to survive another day. Just like Lego, we are scattered pieces of various shapes and sizes that are brought together to be made into a meaningful entity by these very kurogos. Our life, our journey, our becoming, all is incomplete and impossible without the effort of our existent invisibles; our kurogos.

So, now that we know that there exist some invisibles in our life that play an instrumental role, the next question is, how do we recognise them? How do we make sure that they stay forever? Honestly, the answers to these questions lie in forgetting. Yes, after consciously understanding the existence of certain invisibles, the next stage is to make your unconsciousness active. By this, I don’t mean to push humanity into neglect of its most faithful helpers. Rather, I want humanity to forget that it exists outside or independent of these very existent invisibles. I want humanity to stop perceiving its kurogos as invisible and start imbibing itself with them instead.

If you want to know how this can be done; how we can imbibe ourselves with the most selfless caretakers of universe, with our kurogos, kindly read my next post that gives an insight into achieving the same.