J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Okja: Bong Joon-ho Hates Science

After Bong Joon-ho’s latest film, every little girl will want her own genetically modified pig—and why shouldn’t she? There is absolutely no scientific evidence of any danger stemming from GMO crops or livestock. Don’t tell that to Bong. He has no interest in what science has to say. His crusade against GMO’s is rooted in religious fervor. He believes they are wrong, therefore they must be. In an effort to promulgate the faith, he will introduce the world to an endearing little girl and her giant pig in the Netflix production, Okja (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

When Lucy Mirando took over her father’s chemical and agricultural corporation, she took a page out of Google’s book, projecting an idealistic façade, while employing cutthroat tactics behind closed doors. The super-pig project is her piglet. Dozens of genetically enhance piggies like Okja were placed with traditional farmers around the world to track the impact of regional variables. Okja’s TLC-upbringing in the mountains of South Korea yielded the most impressive results. Now Mirando wants to showcase their poster-pig, so they have ripped him away from Mika, his beloved thirteen-year-old companion.

Of course, a plucky kid like Mija isn’t going to give up her pig without a fight. Her first attempt to rescue Okja causes such a media kerfuffle, Mirando tries to coopt her, on the wise counsel of corporate greybeard Frank Dawson. However, Mija knows when she is being used. That also applies to the animal rights activists who want to deliberately put Okja back in harm’s way for the good of their cause. Thanks to a bit of deliberate mistranslation, that is exactly what they do.

Wow, Bong Joon-ho hates science. Anyone wearing a lab coat in his films ranks somewhere between Richard Speck and John Wayne Gacy on the morality spectrum. He can also be a talented filmmaker when he isn’t hitting the audience over the head with his message. Mother and Memories of Murder are both terrific films. Unfortunately, Okja reflects the kneejerk anti-Americanism of The Host, but spiked with virulent anti-Capitalist rhetoric and marinated in a luddite contempt for technological development. The idyllic scenes of Mija and Okja look amazing and they do indeed pull our heartstrings. However, the manipulation throughout the film is so blatant and relentless, it just becomes a wearisome chore to endure.

Still, the Okja team made her remarkably expressive. Young Ahn Seo-hyun is also appealingly plucky as a Mija and she is clearly a natural working with the big pig effects. It is also good fun to watch the crafty veteran Giancarlo Esposito do his thing as the sly Dawson. However, Tilda Swinton’s shamelessly ridiculous turn as the Mirando sisters makes Snidely Whiplash look like a model of subtlety in comparison, even though he is literally a cartoon villain. However, nothing can compare to the pain of watching Jake Gyllenhaal mug and cavort as fallen-from-grace TV nature programming host, Dr. Johnny Wilcox. Ouch, that will leave a mark on your soul.

There are ethical implications to this film as well. Imagine how counter-productive it might have been if a leading genre filmmaker like George Pal released a film demonizing immunizations a few years before the rollout of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine. Granted, widespread famines are still largely deliberately caused by dictators to control or even decimate large population segments, but there is still a great deal of hunger and malnutrition in the world. GMO food could be a godsend to those suffering, but Bong is whipping up an irrational fervor against such scientific breakthroughs.

Make no mistake, this is a religiously motivated film. It is an article faith that just so happens to have a big, cute super-pig. Hopefully “corporate media” will eventually defang and rehabilitate Okja, turning her into the star of her own Saturday morning kids show. She is pretty much the only reason to see her eponymous film and you really don’t want to watch what Bong puts her through. Not recommended, Okja opens this Wednesday (6/28) at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

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