“I think that films aren't necessarily tools to change the world,” Bong Joon-ho muses, through the aid of his translator. “A film is just a beautiful thing in itself. However, when someone is experiencing the beauty of a film, that itself is changing the world in some aspect.”
Bong's mission statement is simple, if you would consider it a mission statement at all. He's the director behind Netflix's latest original release Okja, a film that follows the friendship between a young girl, Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn), and her super-pig, the titular Okja, bred by the Mirando Corporation as a futuristic food source, but whose treatment at their hands grows crueller and more savage with every new turn.
“I don't expect the entire audience to convert to veganism after watching the film,” the director says. “If you consider it, even the protagonist Mija – her favourite food is chicken stew in the film. I don't have a problem with meat consumption itself, but I do want my audience to consider, at least once, where the food on their plate comes from. And, if one is to do that, I believe the level of meat consumption will gradually decline.”
The South Korean director's films, in the cinematic landscape, have never really been considered outright political missives, perhaps only because they hide under the guise of genre film. His 2013 work Snowpiercer saw society's imbalances microcosmed in one-high-speed dystopian train, the classes represented by successive passenger cars. The Host (2006) expressed its own environmental concerns when it let loose a fish-like beast, mutated by radioactive waste, onto the streets of Seoul. Fantastical, allegorical creations both, though Bong doesn't quite see Okja fitting into that category.
“In The Host, the monster is a complete fantasy,” he says. “It’s fictional, it's science fiction. However, although the super-pig phenomenon may be fiction at the moment, it's very close to being a reality. In Canada, they already made some kind of GM salmon. It's already gotten FDA approval. They are starting to very carefully distribute it in the market. In the process of researching the film, I met and interviewed a PhD student who is developing a GM pig. So, Okja is real. It's actually happening. That's why I rushed making Okja, because the real product is coming.”
Bong also largely avoids the label of political filmmaker since his work feels far from didactic in its nature; indeed, he's a director who understands just how complex morality can be in the modern world. His films are never about straight good versus evil; there's never a particular heroic sense of triumph to be found. Yet, neither is he a filmmaker who revels in pessimistic brutality. Even in the darkest of moments, there's always a spark of hope to be found.
He laughingly dismisses his approach as the product of a “very chaotic mindscape”, though he does add: “Even the characters I create, they aren't clear-cut supervillains or superheroes, they're all residing in the grey area. Maybe that's why a certain amount of optimism or pessimism mixes into my films. I do feel, however, that's more realistic and more reflective of how society is, and how life is. If everything is clear-cut and residing in one direction, it might feel a bit forced.”
No one in Okja captures Bong's subtle touch better than the CEO of the Mirando Corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton). Under another filmmaker's guidance, she could easily have fulfilled the role of pantomime villain: the sweet, smiling face of corporate conscience, hiding ulterior motives and a cold, unfeeling heart. But under Bong’s guidance, there’s more to Lucy than meets the eye.
The director refers back to one scene in particular from the film, in which Lucy hides out in her trailer ahead of the much-anticipated commencement of the super-pig festival, at which Okja is due to be unveiled. Staring at a piece of super-pig jerky, she forlornly admits that this entire charade has been to cover the simple fact that, in reality, consumers are far too paranoid to ever accept the truth of GM food.
“And when she was delivering that line, I felt that was, in that moment, the truth,” he says. “At least, in Lucy's view, she was speaking the truth. So on the day we were filming that scene, I discussed it with Tilda and I asked her to deliver it in a way that she feels she's speaking the truth. The thing is, she also eats the jerky, it's not like she doesn't eat it or refrains from eating it. She is being truthful, at least in her intent. But it could also mean she's in complete denial of what's going on.”
In a way, it’s strange that a film of such great heart, of pure intention, could be a source of controversy – but such is the will of the film festival circuit, which Bong admits “always needs issues like this”. Okja arrived to this year's Cannes Film Festival under the Netflix banner, who also produced a fellow contender, Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories. The Netflix logo was booed by rowdier attendees, a heated discussion flared up, and it was eventually announced that, in future, all films which premiere at Cannes must receive theatrical distribution.
“I'm sceptical as to whether that's the right thing to do,” Bong muses. The director, for one, has been particularly burnt in the past by the theatrical distribution model: Snowpiercer, despite its all-star cast featuring the likes of Chris Evans and Octavia Spencer, was landed with a limited US theatrical run, and no UK distribution at all.
“I believe there are a lot of facets to this issue,” he says. “And we also have to take into account the films that always wanted a theatrical release but never got to have them. Noah Baumbach and I made movies with Netflix, and Todd Haynes is working with Amazon; all these kinds of things are more of a chance for filmmakers and creators. All those regulations and the rule of distribution: they have to fix it, revise it, develop it. It's their job, not our job. We just create.”
“In the end,” he adds. “I do feel like a film is a film; whether it's theatrical distribution or streaming distribution, they should coexist, and are already coexisting. What really needs to happen is for people to make rules for them to coexist in a better environment.”
Indeed, doesn't Okja's central friendship, between girl and pig, teach us exactly that: to coexist together?
Okja hits Netflix on 28 June