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-[Film Reviews]-, American Independent Cinema, East Asian Cinema, English Language Film Industries, Korean Cinema

‘Okja’ (2017) & ‘Parasite’ (2019): The Best & Worst of Bong Joon-ho

Directed by: Bong Joon-ho || Produced by: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Lewis Taewan Kim, Dooho Choi, Seo Woo-Sik, Ted Sarandos [1], Bong Joon-ho [12], Kwak Sin-ae, Moon Yang-kwon, Jang Young-hwan [2]

Screenplay by: Bong Joon-ho1-2, Jon Ronson1, Han Jin-won2 || Starring: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Ahn Seo-hyun, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal [1], Song Kango-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam [2]

Music by: Jeong Jae-il || Cinematography: Darius Khondji1, Hong Kyung-pyo2 || Edited by: Yang Jin-mo || Country: South Korea1-2, United States1 || Language: English1, Korean1-2

Running Time: 120 minutes1, 132 minutes2 || 1 = Okja, 2 = Parasite

Bong Joon-ho is one of the best working directors in the world right now, alongside favorites of mine like David Fincher, Denis Villeneuve, and Kathryn Bigelow. His expansion outside Korean-language filmmaking with Snowpiercer (2013), starring big-name Western actors like John Hurt, Ed Harris, Chris Evans, and Tilda Swinton, in addition to long-time collaborator, Song Kang-ho, marketed his abilities beyond his native Korea and fans of Memories of Murder (2003). Those abilities include strong characterizations, great direction of photography, wacky tonal genre-blending, and inventive screenplays. Though I have problems with some of the weirder aspects of his narratives’ tonal hybridization — some might say, tonal clashing (e.g. The Host [2006] alternating between horror and awkward comedy thanks to its “mutant tadpole-monster,” Evans trying and failing to emote about people self-cannibalizing in Snowpiercer, etc.) — there’s little doubt Bong handles risky, borderline nonsensical story material better than most writer-directors on the planet.

Top: The titular “super pig,” Okja (left), accompanies Ahn Seo-hyun (right) through the Korean woodlands. Bottom: Ahn Seo-hyun (right) is guided by her corporate chaperone/kidnapper, Tilda Swinton (left) to the former’s highly choreographed reunion with Okja.

A good juxtaposition of Bong’s greatest strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker involve the comparison between his latest two features, Okja and Parasite. The former, a modern young-adult fairy tale about a girl (Ahn Seo-hyun) raising a genetically engineered “super pig” as part of a secret marketing gimmick for American agribusiness, is Bong’s first official American co-production and my least favorite movie of his. The latter, 2019’s Palm d’Or winner at Le Festival de Cannes, the first Korean production to win the award, is, in theory, a more “standard issue” dramatic contemplation of class warfare, socioeconomic anxiety, and populist rage. Despite Parasite otherwise sounding like the sort of self-important, overly politicized Oscar-bait I regularly mock and Okja being, on paper, a straightforward genre film, in practice 2019’s critical darling is the more entertaining narrative, while Okja’s fairy tale premise and near fantastical tone ends up being the preachier of the two.

Let us start with 2017’s Okja: Like Snowpiercer, Okja blends famous English speaking actors (e.g. Tilda Swinton in dual roles, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Steven Yeung in a bilingual performance, etc.) with his principal Korean starring cast (e.g. the aforementioned Ahn, Byun Hee-bong, Yoon Jee-moon) to produce a multi-lingual, multi-genre fantasy whose ambition often outstrips the budget of its digital FX and Bong’s tonal control. Like The Host and parts of Snowpiercer, I felt Okja’s whiplash from live-action fairy tale to absurdist black comedy to horrific, ultra-serious commentary on industrialized farming and animal welfare to be too much by story’s end. Okja’s narrative thesis boils down to how livestock are exploited by corporate greed thanks in part to contemporary genetic engineering, which is an interesting enough theme on paper; executed with the film’s bloated ensemble cast, slow pacing, inconsistent characters (Ahn makes for an uninteresting protagonist; Gyllenhaal gives what may be the worst performance of his career), and on-the-nose political commentary (e.g. the Animal Liberation Front and their ilk versus corporate America is a tired cliche to which Bong adds nothing new), however, the social justice story isn’t worth cinematographer Darius Khondji’s impressive camerawork.

Sealing the deal on my non-recommendation for Okja is the titular character itself; though the digital FX of the eponymous “super pig” are not as distracting as Snowpiercer’s frozen apocalypse, its overall creature-design is simplistic and its physical abilities, unbelievable. The cutesy, hyper-sentient portrayal of the pig in conjunction with the sheer darkness the story reaches in its final act felt manipulative a la Avatar (2009), which I never expected from a screenwriter like Bong.

Completing a 180-degree turn in directorial precision from Okja is this year’s Parasite, an effective blend of sociopolitical drama and cinematic comedy that may be one of 2019’s best films. Where Okja’s social commentary is obvious and heavy-handed, Parasite’s is nuanced and multi-layered; where Okja’s story feels slow and bloated at only 120 minutes, Parasite is a 132-minute roller-coaster of human chess, ranging from terrifying to exciting to funny to sad in ways that feel natural and earned… a tonal execution that Okja also lacks.

The premise of Parasite is at once quaint and also strange: A trashy, unkempt family (Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam) of lower-class means work menial jobs and occasional scams to make ends meet; when the son of the family (Choi) uses one of his few upper-middle class connections to get a high(er)-paying job as an English tutor for the daughter of a wealthy family, our main characters scheme further ways to integrate themselves into the wealthier household and milk them for additional cash. What proceeds is a microcosmic stage-play of sorts about working-class spite and upper-class entitlement, with audience sympathy alternating between the two and the allegorical title switching allegiance in kind. Parasite sells this complex mix of moral ambiguity and thematic seesawing through subtle yet powerful set-design and great framing; our working-class family’s home within a semi-basement contrasts with the wealthier family’s almost Frank Lloyd Wright-type abode, with visual elements of sunlight, shadow, and rain providing further thematic weight to each location.

From left to right, Choi Woo-shik, Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin, and Park So-dam make pizza boxes as part of a comical side-job for much needed income in Parasite’s opening act.

Altogether, while Okja is not a bad film and Parasite is not the decade’s greatest, I struggle to recommend the former while enthusiastically pushing the latter despite how much their subject-matter might suggest otherwise. Okja is an ambitious, semi-big budget ($50 million) fairy tale that tries to refresh the tired dynamic of rural, idyllic childhood innocence defending animal welfare from urban corporate greed, but feels as cliched as most renditions of that premise. Parasite, on the other hand, transforms a stereotypical Oscar-bait story about social inequality and dialectical materialism into the sort of dramatic surrealism that made its creator famous (see also Mother [2009]). As much as I’ve championed Netflix’s Original Movies of late despite their naysayers, in this particular case I advocate for skipping the Bong Joon-ho film exclusive to that platform in favor of the critical darling sweeping independent theatres worldwide. That’s right: Parasite is worth the trip to your local big-screen. How often do I say that?


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Okja is an international live-action rendition of a Disney Renaissance tale, a contemporary odyssey about a child heroine fighting to protect her quiet life with her giant dog, but that vision gets lost amidst convoluted anarchist schemes by the Animal Liberation Front, forcible livestock breeding, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s inexplicable screeching. Parasite is Bong Joon-ho at his most impressive, however, achieving the nuanced tonal blend for which his other recent films have striven and narrowly missed; it’s cinematic class-warfare done right.

—> Okja is NOT RECOMMENDED, however much I enjoyed Khondji’s smooth tracking shots and Paul Dano’s likable performance, as it’s too horrifying for children and too cartoonish for adults. Parasite, though, comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for its excellent set-design, great ensemble cast, and thoughtful, ambiguous message.

? The only time I saw more Tilda Swintons in a movie was in Suspiria (2018).

About The Celtic Predator

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