“We wanted to leap over boundaries” – Bong Joon-ho talks Okja

We talk to the director and star of brilliant genre-bending creature feature adventure Okja

There are very few filmmakers who can deliver a story like Bong Joon-ho. Even in his darkest work there are flashes of humour and brilliant weirdness, while his sci-fi movies like The Host and Snowpiercer have showcased a rich imagination and his gift for blending genres and tones while delivering a message.

His latest film is Okja, co-written with Frank‘s Jon Ronson, and it follows a young Korean girl named Mija (An Seo Hyun) as she races across the globe to save her beloved superpig pet from the clutches of evil corporate head Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), who has bred these amazing creatures to be slaughtered and eaten. The star-studded cast includes Paul Dano, Steven Yeun and Lily Collins as well-intentioned but occasionally pratfalling animal rights activists, Jake Gyllenhaal as a boozy celebrity zoologist, and Giancarlo Esposito as Lucy’s canny colleague.

It’s a brutal indictment of our treatment of animals and our willingness to turn a blind eye to the slaughterhouse process, but it’s also a thrilling adventure, as this unstoppable young girl goes on an action-packed journey to save her best friend.

An Seo Hyun as Mija in Okja.

We sat down with Bong Joon-ho and star An Seo Hyun shortly after the film’s premiere in Cannes, where it received a standing ovation while emerging at the centre of some controversy about Netflix’s place at the festival. Bong remembers the screening with wry self-deprecation and a grin.

“It was very scary,” he tells us. “I was very nervous. During the screening, it was very strange, I couldn’t feel the audience’s reaction. But after the screening there was a standing ovation, which I liked very much, although it must have been out of politeness! The cast was there, and the audience wanted to congratulate them. They may like or dislike the film but I felt like the long process of work was being wrapped up and I was being applauded for it.”

It must be exciting to know that everyone around the world can watch Okja at the same time?

Bong Joon-ho: Yes, true, I like that it’s released simultaneously all over the world but I would discourage people from watching the film on a small device like a phone. Watch it on a big TV or a projection screen. The Korean audience is very lucky that it’s getting a theatrical wide release, and also in the UK and US there is a limited theatrical release.

We still haven’t had Snowpiercer here in the UK…

B: The only country that Snowpiercer hasn’t been released in is the UK. It’s so strange, we still don’t know why. There’s a theory about why that is but I don’t want to talk about it. I met Mr Weinstein in Cannes and said hello. He was not in a very good mood.

An Seo Hyun as Mija in Okja

Mija’s relationship with Okja is so emotional and vital to the story. What was it like bringing that to life?

Ahn Seo Hyun: There was a stuffy that was representing Okja on set and a performer inside it who was acting, and I got really familiar with the person that was inside it. So, it felt like the stuffy was Okja, and that’s how I connected with the character.

B: It was a grey, spongy fiberglass thing, but the same shape and size as Okja, so she acted with that.

It’s a very physical role with a lot of action, did you enjoy the stunt work?

A: When there are scenes where I’m hanging off something that was actually hard. There is CG and VFX going on but I actually had to hang off something to get that shot done. But the director thought of me a lot and took care of the fact that I wouldn’t have to do any of the complicated or dangerous stunts, there were stunt performers that did it for me. Overall, I thought the experience was comfortable and everyone made sure that I was OK.

Tilda Swinton and Bong Joon-ho

It’s a satire but also an adventure; had you always planned to tell this story with this young girl at the centre?

B: Yes, exactly like that. She’s like Frodo from Lord Of The Rings, how he has to leave the Shire to throw the one ring into Mount Doom. She leaves the mountains of Korea to go to the big city.

The energy that Mija possessed, it had to be unstoppable. No big corporations could get in her way, her heart never stops beating, there’s this unstoppable energy she had to have constantly.

Ahn, was it difficult to keep that level of energy up during filming? Mija is pretty much on the run for the entire film, there’s not a lot of downtime…

A: There are a lot of aspects that overlap between Mija and me. During filming, I felt like I was Mija and so I was focused in the situations and the scenes, and so the energy was endless.  It wasn’t difficult and I felt like the energy just was processed more from inside me because I was thinking as Mija.

B: During many of the days of production we were talking about food a lot. Sometimes more than the script! Those discussions always provided energy to Mija. Darius Khondji the DP also talked about food a lot, the three of us always talking about food, food, food.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Okja

There are moments that are really quite brutal and shocking, and it’s often very funny, and really quite moving. Are you thinking about the tonal shifts while you’re writing?

B: I’m never really conscious of tonal shifts, what scene has to be this tone, what scene has to be that tone. I begin with the narrative structure and I head out at the beginning with the narrative structure in mind. If a viewer only saw the beginning of the movie where Mija and Okja live very peacefully in the mountains, maybe they would think this film is some kind of Disney, kid and an animal movie, but the whole movie is different.

Usually when we think about films dealing with animals, there’s this one side where they deal with the lovely, family-like aspect of animals and there’s the other end of the spectrum where it’s much more like a political documentary where they show the goriness, the explicitness of butchering and slaughtering animals.

What this film tried to do was merge those two categories together. But in real life, people always want to separate those two worlds. It’s the same animal but we call it a pet, one of the family, and we love them, but the others in the slaughterhouse or the supermarkets, we see them as meat products. That’s the reason why the normal major commercial films never show the inside of the slaughterhouse, because it destroys those safe borderlines. But in this movie, we wanted to leap over those kinds of boundaries that separates them, because they are all the same animals.

Steven Yeun, Paul Dano and Devon Bostick in Okja

Finally, there’s a scene where Paul Dano’s animal rights activist takes his glasses off like removing a disguise, was that a homage to Christopher Reeve’s Superman?

B: [laughs] It reminds you of Christopher Reeve? Paul Dano would be so giddy to hear this! He said “I do so many roles where I’m weird, I’m always beaten up by somebody, but in this movie, I get to beat someone up!” He looks quite cool with the black suit in the movie. I didn’t think of Superman or Christopher Reeve for that scene, however Paul Dano did have to end that scene by putting on a costume and hiding his identity.

The thing is Paul Dano’s facial structure isn’t ideal for hiding his identity, everybody can realise that it’s him in a second. He was very lovely in that sequence. And he made his own feature film last year, he’s in post-production on his directorial debut and he cast Jake Gyllenhaal. They discussed their own film on my set!

Okja is in UK cinemas and available to stream on Netflix in all territories from 28 June. Get all the latest fantasy news with every issue of SciFiNow.