After his one-location post-apocalyptic thriller Snowpiercer, Bong Joon Ho widens his scope with the globe-trotting adventure Okja. The thrilling, emotional film follows the international journey of a genetically engineered but sweet-souled animal as she gets separated from her young caretaker Mija (An Seo Hyun) and crosses paths with ruthless capitalists and animal-rights activists.
Ahead of the film’s opening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, we sat down with the South Korean director to discuss his vision, influences, the global aspects of the film, and why Okja should be seen on the big screen.
There’s such a clarity of vision throughout Okja; you don’t really see that in other blockbusters nowadays. Can you talk about how you achieve such precise movement and momentum?
I’m always very nervous in my everyday life and if I don’t prepare everything beforehand, I go crazy. That’s why I work very meticulously on the storyboards. If I ever go to a psych ward or a psychiatric hospital, they’ll diagnose me as someone who has a mental problem and they’ll tell me to stop working, but I still want to work. I have to draw storyboards.
You can sense the influences of Miyazaki and Spielberg, but your style is distinct throughout. Can you talk about perhaps seeing those kind of films at a younger age and if you recalled them while crafting Okja?
I feel that the films of Hayao Miyazaki and the films that Steven Spielberg had created in the 70s are always generally connected to me. I’ve always been continuously influenced by these films. However, for Okja specifically, I was very influenced by George Miller’s work Babe: Pig in the City. A few weeks ago in Cannes Film Festival, it was really fantastic. I had the chance to have a dinner with George Miller and Okja is the closing film for the Sydney Film Festival and George Miller will be there. I’m so excited.
With this film, there’s no sense that it feels watered down at all. When there’s action, there’s a brutality to it, which actually makes for a more emotional experience. Can you discuss that balance?
In the year 2015, I actually got the chance to visit a slaughterhouse in Colorado and I witnessed the violence that humans inflict on animals in this capitalistic era that we live in and in a sense, it is watered down because the stuff I saw and the stuff I witnessed in that slaughterhouse doesn’t even come close to what I finally depicted in the film. I feel that that’s the reality that we live in, and because it’s the reality, I have no problem and it’s very natural for me to portray that in my films, to portray these realities in my films.
Coming from Snowpiercer, which had such a streamlined focus in terms of the location, how did it feel opening up and going all over the world to shoot this film?
I’m never really conscious of whether it will reach a Korean audience or whether it will reach a worldwide audience. Maybe I’m very selfish for saying so, but I just create movies that I alone would like to watch and that’s enough for me.
Can you also talk about the global aspect of your cast and crew?
This project included lots of locations, lots of cast and crew all over the world. It was truly a melting pot that encompassed a lot of cultures and it was a very joyful experience. Ironically, the reason why we had to have all these locations and cast and crew all over the world was to portray this very strong multinational company that rules among the world. It is truly a jab at capitalism and a satire of these multinational companies. It’s a very peculiar film where a young girl in the deepest mountains of Korea is connected with the CEO of a multinational company, which is based in Manhattan. I really feel it’s a commentary on the world we live in today — a very explicit commentary on the world we live in today.
At Film Society of Lincoln Center we are one of the few places showing this film in a theater. Do you have any words for the audience that will be getting this rare experience?
I believe that in the long lifespan of a movie that a theatrical release is very short and the rest of it lives in the digital realm. I do believe that because of the high standards that Netflix provides, they have very good means of digital archiving and preserving a film. I recently watched a 70s Stanley Kubrick film on Netflix, which was a very good experience. Nevertheless, there’s nothing better, and no better means to watch a film than in theaters and you guys are doing it that way, you guys have that opportunity. I have very fond memories of sharing my previous films at the Lincoln Center and MoMA. I hope you enjoy it.
Okja is now playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Get tickets.