Tag Archives: Bong Joon-ho

Okja (2017)

[BS Note: This film is currently available for streaming on Netflix]

Returning to Korea after his first English language film, director Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder) has made his second creature feature. In 2006, he put his own spin on the monster movie with The Host and here he brings a unique narrative about a special pet. A multinational food corporation with a bad history, Murando, led by their strange CEO Lucy (Tilda Swinton; Doctor Strange), has created a new breed of superpig – larger, less environmentally demanding, and tasty. In a rebranding effort, Lucy announces that 26 pigs will be sent out to be raised locally by farmers around the world with a plan to hold a “Best Superpig” contest and launch their new food products 10 years later. Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) is the teenage girl who has raised her superpig, Okja, in South Korea until it is taken away by Murando. Unwilling to say goodbye to her pet, Mija travels to America to bring Okja back home.

The success of the film relies entirely on its depiction of Okja. The hippo-like animal is rendered with a startling amount of personality and intelligence. She cuddles with Mija as she sleeps and is able to problem solve when needed. She is less like Mija’s pet than her partner in crime as she helps her fish, climb, and even risks herself to make sure Mija is safe. Most computer-generated effects suffer from unrealistic physics. They feel weightless and removed from the physical world. Okja doesn’t have this problem. She trots and leaps with a heft fitting of a creature her size. This attention to detail in her animation makes her feel believable as she interactions with the objects and people around her.

Okja’s human emotions make her immediately endearing.

There are some unexpected additions to Bong’s direction. He shoots the film with a much more frenetic style than usual. The camera bounces and shakes as it chases its subjects, even employing snap zooms as needed. This progression towards a more mainstream style of shooting action started with his previous film, Snowpiercer, but is much more prevalent here. The end result is somewhat mixed. While it does add a sense of chaos to the story, especially when Okja is involved, it can be unnecessarily distracting. It makes the otherwise well-staged action harder to follow which detracts from its overall impact.

Few filmmakers working today can juggle multiple conflicting tones like Bong can. While the overall silliness of the film prevents it from ever becoming too heavy, he still has to balance animal cruelty, extremism, corporate machinations, and animal-human relationships, each with its own tone. Fortunately, he is able to quickly change the mood as needed. Thrilling chase scenes end in toilet humor and what could be a tense hostage situation with animal rights extremists is punctuated by their incompetence. The one constant in the changing moods is Mija’s relationship with Okja. Mija’s unbreakable will to save Okja and her refusal to give up are heartwarming. Their affection serves as the emotional core of the film. While situations can often stretch believability, their friendship is a pleasant anchoring point. There could be a greater theme read into about the morality of animal farming and meat consumption, but Bong keeps his emphasis on Mija and Okja. Their credible relationship and Bong’s skilled tonal maneuverings make Okja a sweet story of the bond between a girl and best friend. Slighter than his typical work, but enjoyable nonetheless.

3/5 stars.

Colossal (2017)

Nacho Vigalondo, the Spanish director who debuted with the similarly strange Timecrimes, is back with his highest profile release yet. Colossal stars Anne Hathaway (The Devil Wears Prada) as she plays against type as Gloria, an out-of-control alcoholic writer who returns to her small-town family home after being kicked out by her fed-up boyfriend. When back home she reunites with a childhood friend (Jason Sudeikis; We’re the Millers) and discovers that she is somehow controlling a giant Godzilla-like monster rampaging through South Korea.

The ridiculous setup brings lots of laughs. As Gloria discovers the rules of her powers, her drunken attempts to make sense of things are hilarious and Hathaway is clearly enjoying herself in the role. In her few moments of sobriety she fails miserably at explaining her situation to her friends. It isn’t until she starts making the monster dance or do other unusual movements that she is able to convince them. These scenes become comedic as the director crosscuts between her steps in a suburban playground and the masses of hysterical people fleeing city-wide destruction in Seoul. Then, when she is afraid of what might happen if others knew about her ability, she clumsily tries to hide the truth, as if anyone would believe her. When Gloria is still discovering the rules of her situation, the film is as funny as it is intriguing.

The discovery of Gloria’s powers is the best part of the film.

What’s surprising is how being the monster changes her. In her previous life, Gloria’s lack of responsibility allowed her to spiral out of control. She didn’t have any impact on others so she was left without a purpose until now. The ability to control a gigantic beast in another country becomes empowering. She can suddenly communicate with and affect the lives of millions and it changes the way she approaches her life. She starts to make better decisions (i.e. drinking less) and taking more responsibility. The use of the supernatural setup to grow her character is an unexpectedly compelling character arc.

It’s the film’s latter half that drags it down. Unsatisfied with the lighter tone, Vigalondo moves the film into much darker territory. Certain characters make abrupt turns into villainous roles and the sudden change is unearned. It ruins the fun of the wacky premise and doesn’t match the precedent set by the early parts of the movie. The director also adds unnecessary exposition. There are brief flashbacks throughout the film that hint at the cause of Gloria’s powers, but when their true nature is fully revealed it creates plot holes rather than filling them. The explanation doesn’t add gravity to the film and only distracts from the core: Gloria’s self-improvement. As strange as it seems, these changes stretch belief more than Anne Hathaway controlling a kaiju.

The most important factors in a film like this are consistency and commitment. Consistency in tone and commitment to the story. Far-fetched premises like Being John Malkovich, or any of Charlie Kaufman’s works for that matter, succeed because they have a clear emotional direction and stick to that angle. Other unusual takes on the kaiju genre like Bong Joon-ho’s The Host managed their lighter approach because they never deviated from their initial intent. Instead of continuing in the tone of Colossal’s successful early sections, Vigalondo loses focus and falls prey to damaging forced conflict and exposition.

3/5 stars.

The Wailing (2016)

In a small village outside Seoul local policeman Jong-Goo (Kwak Do-won) is called to a crime scene. A previously normal man has viciously killed his family through repeated stabbing. The trend continues as more crimes occur featuring average people suddenly going on murderous rampages and losing their minds. All of these events began soon after a Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) moves into town and rumors spread in the village that he is somehow connected to the murders.

The Wailing starts out as a standard police procedural but soon hints at a supernatural bent.  The culprits of these horrific crimes have a feral quality, growling and convulsing as if possessed. Some are seen prowling naked in the night before the crimes are committed. When people begin indicting the Japanese man for these horrendous happenings, they claim he has cast some sort of spell…literally. This is a setting where demons and witchcraft are very serious concerns.

The shaman makes his attempt to remedy the situation.
The shaman makes his attempt to remedy the situation.

The film establishes several potential sources of unnatural intervention. The Japanese man, a Christian priest, and a shaman all have their own rituals and beliefs. Whether it’s holding a cross, sacrificing animals, or dramatic rites, each custom is portrayed in the same alien fashion. As the film progresses Jong-Goo must decide who to believe, but there is no clear answer. They all seem strange in their own way and the confusion only adds to the heavy dread already present.

There are strong resemblances to Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece Memories of Murder. A somewhat competent cop, a series of murders in a small town, and near constant rainfall. Director Na Hong-jin (The Yellow Sea) uses the torrential precipitation to demonstrate the hopelessness of the situation. He also contrasts the idyllic countryside filled with lush forests against the gruesome murders. Like Bong, Na skewers the desire to describe complex issues with clear, understandable principles. The townspeople try to attribute the crimes to religious beliefs as a method of deflecting reality. What is the better conclusion, that a person has been cursed or that they knowingly committed a heinous crime? As Jong-Goo navigates this spiritual struggle, director Na expertly balances the human fears with the magical possibilities.

4/5 stars.