Old Major’s Daughter: The Lens of “Okja”

Some quick thoughts on what “Okja” achieves, and how we might consider it.

In a recent interview, the musician Josh Tillman remarked that children are incredibly “binary with the recognition of hypocrisy.” As the saying goes, “See yourself through the eyes of a child,” or something like that. The point, it would seem, is the reduction of preconceptions, assumptions, and expectations conditioned by experience to an outlook more innocent; in other, crasser words, forget all of the bullshit you’ve accumulated along the march to adulthood.

“Okja,” the latest movie from Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, has come under fire for at times feeling half-baked, having one foot in overt satire, the other firmly planted in the real, sort of like a noncommittal and self-conscious Wes Anderson film. Indeed, it’s hard to reconcile the earnestly grotesque, Sinclairian depictions of production and corporate greed with the often deadpan absurdity of the characters; the whole is not subject to the same treatment as its parts. But I think this incoherence is useful, because, whether intentionally or not, Bong has presented the world as his protagonist, Mija, perceives it.

At 11 or 12, Mija, the surprisingly resourceful granddaughter of a montane Korean farmer, is not naive enough to see things as overly cartoonish, but still green enough to notice, and perhaps be hypersensitive to, nonsensicality. One scene, in which animal rights activists explain to Mija their philosophy and mission in the back of a semi-truck, teeters on the edge of sincerity and comedy. Two activists, played by Paul Dano and Stephen Yeun, engage in a subtle skirmish about the importance of nuance in translation, the consequences of which, we’re later shown, are anything but playful. All the while, they’re being pursued by an orderly line of dozens of cop cars. One is rather unsure how to contextualize these events. Is Dano’s character a little socially aloof, or a man of conviction-to-a-fault, or maybe both, or…? And then one of the activists passes out because apparently, he doesn’t eat at all on account of all food having at some point been dirtied by unsustainable practices. Should we laugh? This uncertainty, however, mirrors the “almost-thereness” of Mija’s take on the adult world. By being unable to ascertain the exact difference between mature dialogue and stupid, sacrosanct social curtsies, the end effect of the whole tirade is that, instead of sympathizing with the righteous cause, Mija just wants to take her pig home. The audience can hardly blame her.

The beginning of the film, a Ted-Talk-from-hell keynote by the neurotic CEO of the agriculture conglomerate, Mirando, is similarly unnerving. While it pretty neatly gets all of the necessary exposition out of the way, it is also a moment that heavily satirizes faux corporate “wokeness,” illustrating the contradictions inherent to a campaign committed to both sustainability and reality TV theatrics. In real life, there’s just no fucking way a talk of this creepy intensity and literal wide-eyedness would ever survive a board room review. But that is, of course, the point of satire.

A cynical but interesting observation: The keynote is supposed to take place in 2007. The problem here is that the aesthetic and cultural zeitgeist it is lampooning didn’t fully exist back then. The graphics in the slide deck, for example, are simply out of step with graphical conventions of the time. So, too, does everyone look like they’re dressed in accordance with the Summer 2017 Yves Saint Laurent catalog. Where are all the fancy pockets and mini-vests? Simply put, it uses post-iPhone memetics in a pre-iPhone world.

This theme – an ethics that can’t keep track of itself – is more or less the core focus of the film. The hypocrisy of corporate PR is on full display in Mirando’s efforts to clean up the mess Mija has made for them, going so far as to even install her as their poster child. Likewise, the aforementioned Animal Liberation Front, though at times laughably adherent to their creed of non-violence, are far too prone to ironic statements and actions that undermine the foundations of their project. This is most evident in a scene where Dano physically assaults Yuen while verbally assaulting him for not adhering to the ALF’s pacifistic tenets. If we return to the approach of interpreting “Okja” through the eyes of Mija, we see a world that writes off moral black-and-whiteness as a childish ideal, yet that toils feverishly to organize complex, contradictory ideologies into a neat little good vs. evil paradigm, and in doing so, destroys the possibility of a neat little good vs. evil paradigm. What’s more, the film does all of this with incredible cinematographic technique.

Then there’s the titular Okja, an outlet for insidious the elevation of the “Natural.” We see in her the possibility of all our primal fantasies. She is the original, “uncooked” being that, in a cruel twist, almost everyone wants to cook. Damn us! I greatly enjoyed the film’s ending, and think it’s treatment of the relationship between Okja and Mija made the film’s message far more resonant: they didn’t die, but everything else is still pretty screwed. The worst part is that the viewer is left with the deep down impression that nothing will change. As far as Mija is concerned, however, (our eyes and ears, remember) things turned out quite alright.

I don’t believe “Okja” is without problems, though. I found Tilda Swinton’s character(s) rather confusing: Lucy’s arc felt underdeveloped, whereas the introduction of Nancy felt unpolished. They certainly set up her arrival throughout the film, but that didn’t stop it from coming across as any less clunky. The obscuring of her face, for example, was almost laughable, because it was so clearly Tilda Swinton, such that when she finally turned around, I was left with the sense of having been disrespected by the device. Without ruining things, they also use Nancy’s ruthless profit motive as a sort of deus ex machina to resolve the film’s climax. Although, I’m not too against this, as it was a bit of dry humor, and could also be construed as the moment Mija “eats the apple,” so to speak, by succumbing to the dirty tactical imperatives of capitalism. I didn’t fully get Jake Gyllenhaal’s zany Steve Irwin character but wish he would’ve played more of a pivotal role. It seemed like he could have been a man full of history and motives relevant to the story, but instead, Dr. Wilcox served mainly as an off-the-wall set-piece.

Yet it could be that, in keeping with our method, these characters need no coherent arcs. They’re real people that make no sense, that have bizarre idiosyncrasies, and whose motivations might differ from one moment to the next. I don’t mean to use this as a cop-out in justification of the film’s shortcomings, but our use of Mija as a narrative lens does lend itself to this.

All said and done, Bong (such a great name) gave us a work that is at once awesome, intelligent, and distinctly gorgeous, an E.T. meets Spirited Away meets The Jungle for the Facebook era. I dug what this film had going on.


Der Bau der Mauer: Constructing an American Embarrassment

When the Berlin Wall was erected in the late summer of 1961, then Mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt, called it die Schandmauer, the Wall of Shame. The East Germans preferred something more heavy-handed, referring to it as the “Anti-Fascist Protection Wall.” Clearly, they had not studied Bernays. As typical as this sort of semantic jockeying between East and West was, it revealed the true kernels of post-war ideology: fascism against liberal democracy, communism against capitalism, facelessness against humanity.

In building the Wall, Generalsekretär Walter Ulbricht and the rest of the East German regime offered the Allies the ultimate political device. How better to draw the line between good and evil than through a physical divide? In the West, the Berlin Wall came to be seen as a startling symbol of oppression, an embodiment of the enemy, and in the hearts and minds of those still free, a reminder of their fortune. However, what was it to the people of East Germany?

Less than three decades after its tireless effort to bring down the Wall, America is contemplating a Schandmauer of its own. Like its German predecessor, this wall, our wall, should it be built, will be the product of reactionary policy and populist dogma, a facile solution to the endlessly complex issue of illegal immigration. Rather than attacking the problem comprehensively, President Trump is bullishly standing by his border wall proposal, a directive that has been met with near universal derision from policy experts and politicians on both sides of the aisle. Yet as of the writing of this piece, Mr. Trump remains steadfast that approximately $21.6 billion of taxpayer money, more than the budgets of the EPA, NASA, and the entire Judicial Branch, will be allocated for his misguided pet project, and what’s more, that Mexico will pay for it. Imagine the scene if Brandt had received a bill for $200 million, courtesy of East Germany.

Much as the Berlin Wall was a physical embodiment of the Soviet system, so too is the border wall an embodiment of Trump’s opportunistic rhetoric. His campaign operated as a sort of unintelligible dialectic. He would make wildly absurd, potentially campaign-ending statements, on stage and on air, before offering pseudo clarifications of his “true” position a few days later. In between the ad-libbed oration and the curated responses, what we got was a sense that the man could not even keep track of what he himself believed. That was fine when he was seen as simply a spokesman for the naïve underbelly of American political thought. Now, though, he speaks for America itself, and we should not stand to settle for a mouthpiece that can conjure no more colorful adjectives than “big” and “huge.”

Two days after the election, the German newspaper Der Spiegel questioned whether or not the President-elect might prove to be the second “Unifier of Europe.” What the paper meant was that in Trump, as they once did with Stalin, continental governments might again find a common enemy dangerous enough to warrant genuine European solidarity. A friend of mine who lives in Germany recently expressed that much of the country, and the EU, feels America can no longer be relied upon, the betrayal of a relationship marked by such moments as the Berlin Airlift and President Kennedy’s infamous, “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. The Germans are a people in whose recent memory lives the specter of populism, and for whom a wall, whatever one should choose to call it, can quite literally stand for much more than just the protection of a border.

President Trump, I ask you this: How will you react when foreign leaders implore you to “tear down this wall”? What will you tweet when it is you and Stephen Bannon whose likenesses are graffitied in fraternal embrace? And most importantly, will you choose to call this wall an “Anti-Illegal Protection Wall,” or will you call it what it really is, a Wall of Shame?

To support the border wall is to support the inheritance of a legacy that is antithetical to everything Americans have fought for the past century to defend. It was not our past, and it cannot be our future. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of America, “the majority possesses a power which is physical and moral at the same time; it acts upon the will as well as upon the actions of men.” Let us exercise this power of the majority and assure President Trump that we do not consent to his error, lest we stand idly by and watch our moral demise as it is built, brick by brick, along the southern border.