Okja: Bong Joon-Ho’s Look Into A Child’s Coming of Age And Some Animal Rights Too

Okja: Bong Joon-Ho’s Look Into A Child’s Coming of Age And Some Animal Rights Too

Bong Joon-Ho continues to make outlandishly quirky films and they surprisingly resonate with most audiences. How does he do it? With The Host, he made a film about a lake monster which has its genesis owing to illegal waste dumping in the world’s water sources. Amazing. With Snowpierecer, he made a film about the prevalent class system plaguing the world using different classes of people live in different sections of a train circling the world (as a metaphor) because post-apocalypse. Astounding. With Memories of Murder, he made a film about the fragility of confidence and ego while treating us to the quirkiest set of detectives put to film. God damn it. How? And now we have Okja.

Okja follows the story of little girl Mija and her quest to save her pet super-pig Okja from being slaughtered. Okja is a one amongst 26 rare pigs seemingly discovered by Tilda Swinton’s corporation. These pigs grow to enormous sizes and are believed to be the answer to the world’s hunger crisis. The pigs are sent across the world to 26 different farmers which are to be taken back to HQ after 10 years to be bred and fed to the world. As Will Smith from the 90s would say, DAYUM!

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The absurdity of the concept aside, Okja is a fantastically fun time at the… um… Netflix. Rarely do I see a film that has such a great handle on its inherent silliness. A person accustomed to Bong Joon-ho’s work knows the style the filmmaker goes for and to the ones unaccustomed to it, “Welcome To The Party!” To paraphrase V from V for Vendetta, Bong Joon-Ho uses over-the-top ness to get prescient messages across while seldom taking sides. This is a tight rope act in every sense of the word but the man has talents that lend to such possessing a distinctive aura about his work. This might divide most audiences but to me, this is cinematic bliss.

Gorgeous shots of pristine Korean wilderness which are quickly replaced by the concrete jungle (so to speak) create a fantastic backdrop for a story that has more depth to it than it initially lets on. While some of the hijinks might seem implausible (Mija has to die 500 different times through the course of the movie) and some of the performances might come off as jarring, the film has a firm handle on what I feel is a very important message that kids need help understanding. Mind you, the film might not be fully appropriate for most kids.

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While the ethical and political debate about animal rights rage on through the course of the film and our real world, the film shrouds its most important lesson under the sea of endless PCP induced posturing. Without spoiling the fantastic final sequence, the film teaches Mija that the real world has no time for her emotions. The film teaches her that the world works via the barter system and to have something you love, you need to part with something too. I cannot begin to stress how important a lesson this is for not only children but a few grown-ups as well.

As a personal opinion, I cringe when films/people tell children that believing in themselves or true love will melt even the hardest of people while facilitating dream accomplishments. As most of us know, this is a fallacy and this film intelligently weaves this message into its narrative without ever being heavy handed about it.

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Neither the Animal Liberation Front nor the big businesswomen seem entirely out of place with their belief systems. While the people who want to save the animals/have them be treated fairly seem right when decency is taken into account, I end up asking myself “if I was a man in a remote country with no access to clean food or water (let alone internet) how seriously would I consider the living condition of livestock when I could starve to death if I chose not to eat said animal’s meat?” I would never know because I’m yet to be in such a perilous position. These two sides have been wrestling in mind for as long as I can remember and being a vegetarian myself, I could make arguments favoring both sides.

My personal thoughts aside, the film has a fantastic cast of characters all of whom (except Mija) are gloriously over the top. From that guy in the ALF who refuses to eat anything because he wants to leave no footprint on the earth to Jake Gyllenhaal’s ridiculous animal scientist, each character is rendered to be as such because the story is being processed through the eyes of a child. While this might not excuse the film’s campiness for a few, viewing the film through this prism might help most to connect to it better. The loud and jarring culture shock a city might levy onto a child living in the mountains is explored quite vividly.

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While the film has its issues and is most definitely not for all comers, I’m hard pressed to find another piece of media that aligned with my thoughts about the animal rights issue to such a high degree. The film does not provide any answers but I commend it for asking the right questions. Once one looks past all the caricatures it creates, (based on a few real world people) the film is sweet yet fantastical story carried by one of the best child performances this side of The Host.

The Host: You Don’t Mess With Korean Godzilla

The Host: You Don’t Mess With Korean Godzilla

The Host is a 2006 monster film directed by Bong Joon-Ho written by Baek Chul-Hyun and Bong Joon-Ho and stars Song Kang-ho, Byun Hee-bong, Park Hae-il, Bae Doona and Go Ah-sung. The film follows the attempts of a family to rescue the main character’s daughter from the clutches of a mutated monster that arises from the excessively polluted Han river.

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Alright, first things first, the CGI work on the monster is not spectacular. It looks a smidge better than the sharks from Sharknado and I will hold it against this film even though I don’t need to. Barring that one little gripe, this is a fantastic monster movie.

We have always been told why Jaws is as awesome as it is. Even though Jaws is essentially a schlocky B-movie, it works as well as it does because of the masterful direction, score, and, most importantly, character work. An argument can be made that the shark is the least compelling part of the whole film. The Host uses a similar template while trying to infuse itself with a hefty amount of social commentary a la Godzilla.

The most arresting thing about the film is its direction. The shots, the colors, the camera moves, the jarringly incongruous music which acts as a background to the scene unfolding on screen and a few other things all add to the film’s overall originality. A dark sense of humor permeates throughout the film, A Clockwork Orange-Esque might I add. The film winks at the audience at a few instances acknowledging the sheer improbability of its subject matter while masking a knowing nod, within the overt wink, to our current concerns about the environment. It’s a hard trick to pull off but by God, this film is smart enough to do it.

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The next big win for the film are the characters and the actors’ portrayal of those roles. Song Kang-Ho is one of the most ridiculously talented actors I’ve come across. I’m amazed that the same guy played the lead role in Thirst, Memories of Murder, Joint Security Area, Mr. Vengeance, this film and so many others. His sheer range and ability to engage me as an audience member with every single one of his films is a testament to his skill. All the supporting characters perform their tasks well and each of them serves a function in the overall narrative (refreshing) with a special mention going to the child actor who plays the lead character’s daughter. She is what you’d get if Dakota Fanning’s character from War of The Worlds was less screamy and more capable.

This film is a rollicking good time on the surface and hides many smart moments and thoughts right under that it’s popcorn movie “crust”. This film commands your attention because of how fearless it is while dealing with some of its heavier themes and works as a roadmap to most major “blockbusters” on how not to be chicken-shit when it comes to making monster movies. The exposition needn’t be front and center, the characters needn’t be stupid, and the audience needs to be respected. The film is deceptively smart and I’d like to advocate the reading folk to conjure up their own interpretaions of what the film is trying to say.

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Memories of Murder: Blowing My Expectations Out The Water

Memories of Murder: Blowing My Expectations Out The Water

Memories of Murder is a 2003 Korean crime drama directed by Bong Joon-Ho, written by Bong Joon-Ho and Shim Sung-Bo and stars Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-Kyung, Kim Roi-ha, Park Hae-il and Byun Hee-bong. The film follows an investigation conducted by the police force of a small town which is ravaged by a killer of women.

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I don’t know how movie racist I am to say this but I started watching this film with the preconceived notion that it would be a super violent Korean crime film with gritty action and gore like many others I’d watched before. But what was presented on screen was something I did not see coming. I did not expect a superbly well-written character drama which did not need blood to ratchet up the tension or violence to keep me engaged.

I once read that the creator of Dragon Ball Z cared about character and humor more than the loud screaming action because he realized that without the former, no viewer would care about the latter. I could not help but feel that a similar template of storytelling was used here as well. The film eases into itself with assured direction and cinematography while introducing its characters. The ease with which the film moves its characters around from hard-nosed cops to comic relief and vice versa is a joy to watch. Some of the secondary characters might be a bit one-note but the chemistry the primary duo share makes for enthralling drama. A buddy cop movie where the buddying up does not come until the third act, refreshing.

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The film has a lot to say about the human state. Especially that one feeling we are all told is very essential to success, Confidence. Confidence in yourself, your skills, your team, your morals, your values etc. We are always told to stick to our guns and believe in ourselves because no obstacle is bigger than the obstacles we create for ourselves. This story puts that theory to the test. What is a person’s breaking point? How long does the rubber band stretch before snapping? Is our state of confidence a product of who we are or the surroundings we put ourselves in or the number of right choices we make or have we not been fully tested by a person or situations larger than our capabilities? I was left asking myself these questions 5 minutes from the end of the film as a specific scene acted as a culmination of all the themes the film was going for. I found myself looking at the secondary theme of fate/choice. I may not forget that one shot for a very long time. We know that we make our choices and lead our lives but we might be led to our options by the choices unrelenting/unknown people make whose actions we do not control, no matter how badly we want to. We are bound by a web of decisions and outcomes that are in our control only at the lowest rung of the ladder.

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The film sneaks up on you the way the killer in it sneaks up on his victims. It’s uncharacteristically quiet and precisely methodical. The film slows down at times and has a few noticeable errors in logic but rest assured that when it has a moment of tension, it strikes quickly and with a ferocity which may leave one clutching their seat (as lame as that may sound when you read it). I’d advise taking a stab at this movie if you are a fan of Seven, it goes through some of the same lines and beats with a story that is uniquely Korean but universally relatable.

OVERALL SCORE – 4.25-stars

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Rambling About The Handmaiden (2016)

Rambling About The Handmaiden (2016)

Nutshell Ramble

Complex, original, affecting, stylish, the work of a man who is at the top of his craft as a director. Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden might be his most mature film to date and that is saying something when one takes a look at his filmography.

OVERALL SCORE – 5/5

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Full Ramble

The Handmaiden is a 2016 Korean erotic thriller directed by Park Chan-Wook, written by Park Chan-Wook and Chung Seo-Kyung and stars Kim Min-Hee, Ha Jung-Woo, Cho Jin-Woong and Kim Tae-Ri. The film takes a deep dive into the lives of its four main characters when one of them goes in, to work as a handmaiden for an aristocratic young woman.

To say anything about the plot of this film would be doing a disservice to the reader. The film is meant to be experienced first hand and the film rewards the audience with multiple twists and turns for keeping their senses away from spoilers. This is an emotionally intelligent film with some of the most complex female characters ever put to film. The audience and the characters are put through the ringer with this story and being unsatisfied with it is a certain impossibility.

Park Chan-Wook’s trademark moves are all here yet again. The man is one of my all time favorite film-makers and every single of work of his I watch only reinforces my belief. The framing is immaculate, the shots are spellbinding, the camerawork is mesmerizing, the score is haunting, the performances are breathtaking and the fact that this film is not in the conversation for one of the best films of 2016 is heartbreaking. Park Chan-Wook and his team create a world within a world which the audience may well have never experienced. It is a deep dive into the human psyche and it is done is his own idiosyncratic and engaging style. Gushing about his direction is something I have done in the past but every new film of his has everything I adore about films. The dark humor is one of my personal winning moments throughout the film.The hypnotic imagery the viewer is subjected to from the first frame is a testament to how much effort one has put into making the film a sheer force of nature.

The plot is extremely intricate and the characters are fleshed out expertly with sure-handed writing helping the cause. The film dials back on Park Chan-Wook’s stylized violence but more than makes up for it with an exquisitely constructed and mature story. The film is gorgeous to look at and the production design is beyond excellent. The psychosexual themes might prove to be a stickler for some audience members but I can guarantee that this will be one of those erotic films which stay with you a long time after the end credits start rolling.

I have made a strong choice to keep this essay as vague as possible because any plot given away is going to add the audience not enjoying the film as much as they should. Trust the film and allow it to tell you its story. A rich and rewarding experience is on the other side of its 2-hour 25-minute runtime.

OVERALL SCORE – 5/5

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Rambling About Thirst (2009)

Rambling About Thirst (2009)

Nutshell Ramble

Park Chan-Wook continues his spectacular track record of making some of the most exceptional, thought provoking and original pieces of cinema.

OVERALL SCORE – 4.25/5

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Full Ramble

Thirst is a 2009 horror drama directed by Park Chan-Wook, written by Park Chan-Wook and Jeong Seo-Kyeong and stars Song Kang-Ho and Kim Ok-Bin. The film explores the life of a Catholic priest after he is subject to an experimental treatment for a new strain of deadly virus.

Park Chan-Wook is back at it again being a truly visionary director. The shot selection, the framing, the score, the direction, the production design, the heady concept, the characterization, the plot, the dark humor, the tongue-in-cheek violence, the genuine scares, the mood, the tone and almost every other aspect of film-making is as on point can be. Park Chan-Wook is not one to skimp on the smallest details and every single bit adds to the overall aesthetic of the film. There is a genuine reason why he is one of my favorite directors working today and this film reinforces my belief that he can do no wrong when directing Korean cinema.

The primary characters of the film are two engaging individuals and their stories are fascinating to watch. The film does have one character whose inner struggle is more compelling than the other but the film does not choose to focus on it to an extent to which one might expect it would. The film does, however, treat horror films with the respect and reverence they deserve. It takes its time to build its characters from the ground up and does not take the easy way out when it comes to adding traits to those characters. Every character’s complexity is palpable and that is the mark of true finesse. The film builds its world patiently as well and sets up rules which serve the film well to keep the story focused at all times. The scares are genuinely gut-churning and the film makes a conscious choice to keep the scares as a part of the overarching story and not cheapen itself with jump scares.

The film’s flaw is in its excess. Not the excess of violence or blood, even though there is a good amount of it, but with the excess in its run time. The film is extremely gripping when it is setting up its dominoes but loses a whole lot of grip when those dominoes start tumbling down. The third act takes a good while to kick into gear and those few moments of meandering may take the audience out of the film. The film does make up for it with one of the most creative final sequences this side of the 2000s. A whole 10-minute scene with less than 5 lines of dialogue and a whole lot of visual storytelling is a point to relish for any fan of smart direction.

Thirst is one of the most original takes on a genre of horror films which has been dragged through the mud for the longest time. It has some parallels to horror films of a bygone era and the choice to focus on character more than lazy scares elevates the film to a higher plane of cinema.

OVERALL SCORE – 4.25/5

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