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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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.’

 

Resignation in Japanese Poetry

Murasaki Shikibu, if not dissected psychoanalytically, represents a landmark of women literacy in the history of the world. As court lady in the ancient Japanese empire of the Fujiwara period, Murasaki pens down what is seldom referred to as the first novel in the world. 
Murasaki is able to write a sort of historical account of her period due to the proliferation of Chinese language in the elite circle of Japan. Daughter of an imperial aristocrat, she was exposed to the learning of Chinese which was seen as a status symbol for the high ranking families in the region. Even though Japanese relations and actual cultural importations from China were put to halt by her time, she does create a cultural bridge between the prosperous Chinese civilisation and her own northern city of Heian Kyo (modern day Kyoto). 
 
In her massively popular The Tale of Genji, we see quite an insightful account of Japanese socio-cultural life of the early eleventh century. Out of many themes, what marks the depth of the entire novel is the spiritual element that Murasaki is able to grasp and reflect upon the circumstances of her real life. After the death of her husband we see the reflection of Buddhist ideas of impermanence and universal transience in the poetry of Murasaki who herself was a devout Buddhist.   
 
Buddhism (Tendai) came to Japan from the Chinese hills and became the dominant religious faith during Murasaki’s time. The Mahayana Buddhism and its principle of resignation from the sorrows of the world reflected heavily in the Japanese poetry of the ancient period; even though the same wasn’t followed to the letter in practice. 
 
Japanese Buddhism was fascinated with the concept of fleeting nature of the world and the same can be seen in this poem from the Nirvana Sutra:
 

Brightly coloured though the blossoms be,
All are doomed to scatter.
So in this world of ours,
Who will last forever?

So in Japanese Buddhism, the memento mori should not be a grinning skull but the images such as scattering of blossoms or the yellowing of autumn leaves, which served to remind them that all beautiful things must soon pass away.
 
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Izumi Shikibu 
 
The host full of women Japanese writers of the period include one of the most emotionally intellectual poetess Izumi Shikibu. In her poetry, we can find an outspoken lamentation about death and illness. This is an excerpt from a splendid and one of the heart warming poems she composed, and this one, she wrote on her death bed:
 
Yo no naka wo                                            
Nani ni tatoemu
Asaborake
Kogiyuke fune no
Ato no shiranami. 
 
Yo no naka wo
Nani nagekamashi
Yamazakura
Hana miru hodo no
Kokoro nariseba
 
Kuraki Yori
Kuraki michi ni zo
Irinubeki.
Haruka ni terase
Yama no ha no tsuki. 
 
This was translated by Arthur Waley:
 
This world of ours – 
To what shall I compare it?
To the white waves behind the boat
As it rows away at dawn
 
This world of ours – 
Why should we lament it?
Let us view it as we do the cherries
That blossom on the hills
 
Out of the dark
Into the dark path 
I must now enter:
Shine on me from afar,
Moon of the mountain fringe 
 
The same lamentation about the fleeting nature of life can be seen the sombre dispositions of Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji is heavily preoccupied with evanescence and death. She writes (in her diary) – ‘If only I had been more adoptable and respond to the pleasure of this fleeting existence with a little more youthful enthusiasm! In her verse she writes:
 
Like the waterfowl that play there on the lake
I too am floating along the surface
Of a transient world 
Apart from lamentation about the sorrows of life, we see a sense of understanding of the transience nature of the world. Another Japanese writer Sei Shonagon writes about the death of her mother – 
 
The moaning period had come to an end and as usual time was hanging heavily on hands. I took out my psaltery and, as I dusted it, plucked occasionally at the strings. Now there was no longer a taboo on playing music, and I reflected sadly on the transience of this world.
 
And finally Murasaki writes – 
 
As I walk across the bridge
That spans the Ford of Yume
I see that this world of ours too
Is like a floating bridge of dreams 
 
Japanese poetry of the ancient period cumulatively reflects the theme of resignation, an ideal so central in the teaching of Buddhism. Even though the subject matter focused on resignation, the very act of writing and creating a body of literature that is homegrown, shows a complete opposite of it. As the eleventh century marks the blossoming of Japanese indigenous culture, after centuries of Chinese and Korean imitation, the idea of democratisation of art and the aesthetics itself have something to cry and take pride at the same time. 

Of Lovers Once Here

Just sit back and stare at

What your eyes show you of this world

Of this lagoon,

Of the sky that is on the edge of being delusional.

Just sit back and stare

With your leather satchel by your side

This is not a divided world, This is

What you left for what you have

The time is running, the rain is on its way

Just sit back and stare,

There won’t be much left to see

What It Means to Imagine

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Imagination is the only purpose upon which existence rests. The castles we built first materialise in our heads before turning into stones and cement. Ursula K Le Guin, a thinker of our times and beyond, said  reading is imperative to imagination and reading only happens in the space of intimacy, faith and silence. Learning, says Le Guin, is a form of reading and vice versa. She further adds that imagination assumes much more importance in this post-capitalist world where every innovative human thought has been reduced to commodification for it to participate in the operational profit making process. Imagination, hence, needs to happen in communities and companionship; blossoming not on confrontation of ideas but on compassion of thoughts. 
 
We see valuation of imagination in the works of one of the greatest existential philosophers – Schopenhauer. He says that the genius is the one who differs not only in degrees of excellence but also in vision. Therefore, a creative genius is often subjected to condemnation or ridicule by contemporaries
 
Another fascinating mouthpiece of soaring imagination would undoubtedly be William Blake and his illustrations in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Subjected to a life of abject poverty, Blake believed in an abstract idea of spirituality which knew no reverence other then the reverence of soul’s self transcendence. Blake’s borderline agnosticism was not merely a political stance but a major imaginative flight. The idea of creating self cosmogony and one’s own definition of faith and spirituality is a thought that is still under a process of evolution in the 21st century, and a thought that we need today more than ever. 

Cezanne’s Large Bathers: A Commentary on Neurological Perception of Reality

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The Large Bathers by Paul Cezanne (1898-1905)
Famously termed as the father of Modernist Art, Cezanne through his seminal work named Large Bathers, captured the historical shift of aesthetics in European art. A painting that took seven years to complete and was in process of being completed till Cezanne’s death, has become a celebratory piece that represents the genesis of modernism and the revival of impressionism in European aesthetics. 
1. Art Appreciation 
The painting has been made by keeping the geometrical construction in mind which was quite prevalent in the perspective art of renaissance; especially the use of triangles. We can see the division of painting into three triangles. The first two triangles show the groupings of six women on each side of the painting and the third triangle is the larger figure that contains both these triangles as well as the background of the painting and meets at the point where the two trees meet in the sky. Such geometrical construction is used to create balance in the artwork. 
 
We can see the reflection of Classicism here which is very similar to the famous work named Diana and Actaeon by the late renaissance Venetian artist Titian. In both these works there has been attempt to visualise human nudity in public space by making human body a primary language of expression (a heavy characteristic of the entire Classical Art). Even if we focus on the two standing women in the picture, the one in the left (woman striding from the tree) looks similar to the 18th century sculpture of goddess Diana and the one in the right, with the positioning of her knees, shows uncanny resemblance to the ancient sculpture of Venus de Milo. 
However, this is also a major shift from Classicism for its lack of detailing in the depiction of human body. Now this is where this painting becomes fascinating. 
 
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Diana and Actaeon by Titian (1556-1559)

 
Inspired by the Impressionist school of art that focuses on elements of art such as light and colours rather than objects, Cezanne here brings back our focus on the fact that it is the element and not the object that is the subject matter of this painting. One can say that this is the purest form of commentary on Classicism where the Classical fascination and technique is used to make something which is a complete deviation from the Classical school. This is evident from the bodies of the women in the painting. Instead of showing sensuality, there is heavy abstraction. So much so that the white marks on the bodies are nothing but the display of the canvas itself for the painter did not choose to paint these spaces. By doing so, he takes out attention from the beauty of a woman’s body to the shapes and forms that represent it (elements of art). 
 
Cezanne’s focus on abstraction is evident from the figures on the two extreme ends of the painting where these figures are not even completed and are represented in a sketched form. Also, two figures in the background,  a man and a horse, are also represented in the most abstract form possible, thereby restricting our appreciation to the elements such as colours (beautiful shades of blue and orange) and shapes. The use of flat strokes to depict the sky and the leaves, also weighs towards impressionism and abstraction. 
 
2. Art Philosophy and History 
The most striking theory of this painting is its heavy commentary on movement. The mixture of Classical subject matter and Impressionist technique shows the historical shift in the European art practice of the period – which is a shift from perspective realism of renaissance to the abstraction and use of elements of art. If we look into the painting, we can see that it is divided into three parts:
First part is the representation of Classical art by the depiction of nude women bathing in public.
Second part is the river that separates the the first part and the background. 
Third part is the background where we see a man moving away from the painting to another direction. 
It is said in one of the interpretations that the man in the background is Cezanne himself and his movement depicts an act of moving away from the traditions of Classical art to a practice that is more elemental in nature. Another example of movement, is the swimmer, who also being distanced from the first part, is shown in moving abstraction. 
 
The other theory that is vocal in this painting is that of alienation. At least six women in the painting are looking away from the audience; and the ones that are staring within the space of painting, have blurred faces. In addition to this we can see spaces in the figures which are left white and shows the bare canvass, which to much of conspiracy theories, can be associated with an external force interrupting the artwork or the purest expression of nudity – which is, no colour at all! Well, all this representation of alienation is there because Cezanne was heavily influenced by the Impressionists. However, it also creates an element of chaos and spontaneity in the painting. Something which takes me to this idea of Dissolving and Becoming
 
The burring figures in the painting as well as the use of flat strokes give this impression that either the scene is captured during its dissolution or during its becoming. This Dissolving-Becoming dichotomy is synonymous with the process through which we perceive reality.  The velocity in which the mind captures the everyday display of reality and processes it is so fast and chaotic that we lose out on understanding or knowing that exact moment when perception takes place. That exact moment when external signals are processed into knowledge. And this is precisely what can be read in the disturbances of this painting. If we refer to my previous piece on Alan de Button’s Art as Therapy, we can bring his idea of the role of art in creating emotional equilibrium to this painting. Cezanne’s construction of chaos makes the viewer use to neurological process of perception to understand the process of perception itself – which is an affair so fast that it reduces the reality to indiscernible representations. It is this understanding of the role of art that not only designated Cezanne as a father of modernism but also made his works an inspiration for future schools such as cubism. 

Ideogram of King Narmer: Pondering Upon the Conflict of Art Predates Language

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Palette of King Narmer (c. 3000 BCE)
This artwork is one of the earliest example of an ideogram; which refers to the representation of an idea through a symbol. The present context has created watertight demarcation between language and art. However, what such distinction fails to understand is the foundation of both of these modes of communication – the need of a living being to externalise an idea or thought by the phenomena of information.
In this clay tablet we see the King Narmer preparing to punish a deviant with a stone dagger. The relevance of this artwork in this context is not defined by the story it depicts but by the top-most panel which has a small inscription that tells us a lot about Egyptian language. The inscription is a pictorial/symbolic representation of a fish and a chisel. Fish translates as Nar and chisel translates as Mer in ancient Egyptian language, thus, giving us the name of this King Narmer. This practice blurs the distinction between art as representation and art as language. Even the artistic analysis of the tablet shows the King adorning symbols of both North and South Egypt showing a possible unification of the region. The fact that a single artwork can use representation as both art and language is extremely fascinating for those who like to question the structuralism and linearity of language and formalism of art.
However, the question that can be asked here is whether such hieroglyphic inscription is an example of something called ‘art’? There are responses in both favour and against of this hypothesis. Those in favour might argue that the entire inscription cannot be reduced to an example of language only for the symbols depicted in it do not merely work as language tools to make a certain word but also have meanings in themselves. For instance, the Scorpion Mace-head at the upper end of the tablet is not used as a phonetic alphabet to depict something else but is used as a symbol that represents Egyptian kings. On the other hand, those who argue against it bring up the very purpose or nature of an artwork that is to create some sense of emotional response to a piece which is not expected towards the normal activities of life. For instance, the depictions of fish and chisel are just the use of phonetics that make these depictions merely tools of a language and not representational art symbols in themselves.
Joaquin Torres Garcia in his ideogrammatic theory says that in ideograms, art becomes the metaphysics of the purity of classical symbols. It is metaphysical because it is made to testify the truth of timeless, unlocalisable and spaceless essence of universal pictorial depiction of humanity. He called this process Constructive Universalism for every depiction is an effort by a man to do abstraction of phenomena around him. Hence, he becomes an Abstract Man. To the contrary, J Marshall Unger in his Myth of Disembodied Meanings, where he responds to the Chinese pictogram language, he argues that no symbol or sign can express meaning independent of language because which cannot be communicated in a language is not a meaning – for it won’t create any communicative map between the sender and receiver of symbols.
Whatever side we take, it is impossible to deny the purpose that either language or art serve through this tablet – information communication. Every mental object or thought is broken down into conceptual chunks. These chunks are then externalised, that is put out in space beyond our own body, in forms of signals. These signals are in the forms of sounds, actions and sometimes even both. Therefore, both art and language become parts of this representational system of information. It is thus quite fascinating to see how a human urge to express itself is so profound that it not only breaks barriers of representational systems such as language but also keep on discovering new ones, such as art. This is precisely the reason why both language and art have witnessed this commonality that refers to their non-static and ever evolving nature.

Art as Emotional Equilibrium

Divorce in Moscow, 1966 by Eve Arnold
A Divorce in Moscow by Eve Arnold (1966) 

 

This picture is one of the most celebrated examples of how art takes the position of a moral canon to teach us about emotional equilibrium in life. Surfacing in Alan de Botton and John Armstrong’s “Art as Therapy”, this picture shows a couple unconsciously becoming a language of grief in public while being perched on a court bench. While man’s face is lost in obscurity, something that may flow from his complete loss of understanding of this relationship, the woman finds herself under the light and hence becomes the focal point of the artwork. The scarf adorning woman is silently staring at a space within the picture showing signs of being lost in contemplation. The ‘would have been(s)’ of life are coming back to haunt her as she prepares to embrace a so called ‘immoral’ act of taking divorce. This idea of contemplating the choices is the central argument of the artwork; for the representation of oblivion through the figures in the background show the smallness of one’s tragedy in others’ eyes. 
 
Alan de Botton argues that art can be an attempt to encourage our better selves through coded messages of exhortation and admonition, i.e., art can help us in balancing our emotional life by exposing us to emotions that stops us from fulfillment or equilibrium. For instance, a fighting couple may not be able to evaluate the level of grief they might face at the day of divorce and this artwork might make them aware of that. Therefore, art for de Button is important in creating equilibrium in ourselves. 
Moreover, the very fact that the picture lacks normative attitude and shows the scene as it is shows that art doesn’t claim the space of moral canon as understood by the society. Rather, it shows the consequent side of not abiding to a particular moral standard and leaves the choice to the spectator.