Beyond Palme d’Or - Revisiting Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Snowpiercer Show His Penchant For Satire

Archita Kashyap - 69 weeks ago

Bong Joon-Ho won the Palme’ d’Or for Parasite and it might be a while before we get to see it in India. But watching his films Okja and Snowpiercer reflect his ability to create satire on film, merging mesmerising visual art with issues that impact the entire globe.

(John Hurt, Octavia Spencer and Chris Evans in a still from Snowpiercer (Image courtesy - MovieStillDB)

Bong Joon-ho has become a recognised name in cinema with his Palme d’Or win this year at Cannes. But the filmmaker’s legacy holds impact beyond the legacy of a single award or recognition. South Korea’s best known cinema import to world cinema today, Bong’s films hold up in the criteria of universal appeal because of two unique traits - his lush, visually enriched storytelling and his ability to satire. 

Accessing his films might be a challenge for the Indian film aficionado. But two of his recent films, post his transition to Hollywood and international cinema, are available on Netflix. Watching both back to back offer clear insight into his evolution, and his focus as filmmaker. At heart, he aims to highlight important social and economic issues that affect all of us around the world. While his films are not political, they are about issues that affect the post modern world. Perhaps this stands out as trademark of a man who can be dubbed an auteur in the present day - an ability to tell a universal story without making it dull or documentary like. 

(Behind the scene photo of Bong Joon-ho on the sets of Snowpiercer (Image courtesy - MovieStillsDB)

For the millennial, Captain America Chris Evans top lines the cast of Snowpiercer. He counts it amongst his best films. Evans has august company in Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Jamie Bell amongst others. Korean actor Kang-ho Song and Vlad Ivanov, a European star make up the rest of a stellar cast. In terms of a story, its almost too simple. A super fast train holds the last human survivors in a post apocalyptic world as it races around a snowed in planet. Visually stunning with a landscape that gives both a beautiful and chilly backdrop to this story, Snowpiercer focuses on class war and economic discrimination as permanent markers of human nature. Evans and his friends live in the carriages for the proletariat, planning a revolution to kick in the door and get access to the coaches of the haves. Tilda Swinton advocates and wages a war of ideals, protecting interests of the rich and the financially blessed. With carriages that offer all comforts from eateries, to a strobing night club to tightly controlled security, Bong lets the film’s visual imagery do most of the talking. That class discrimination will always be a reality in human society is the first argument of this film. It’s futility, or conclusion is not resolved, leaving audiences to interpret these. Bong Joon-ho’s film comes alive in essentially, a dark space, but it engages the viewer through out. 

(A still from Okja (Image courtesy - MovieStillsDB)

It might be reaching to interpret the filmmaker’s thinking here, especially given the fact that the international version up on streaming emerged from a much debated re-edit by Harvey Weinstein. 20 minutes of the film was reportedly trimmed for the global film festival circuit, and for American audiences. Joon-ho is silent on this subject so far. But South Korea’s essentially self aggrandising, wealth seeking and super materialism, post a deeply spiritual and ethical society, might have influenced his thinking here. In South Korea, beauty, possessions, and real estate establish a person’s stature in life to a large extent. Which is why the country has the maximum number of cosmetic surgeries recorded each year. In fact, this is a visible and disturbing reality about most South East Asian societies today, as capitalism and industry boom. Blatant display of wealth marks a person as ‘superior’, a fact established effortlessly by Crazy Rich Asians. His interpretation of social and economic class might be a reflection of how people view success and happiness in his home. In Snowpiercer, a busy plot and visually hectic scenery understate the filmmaker’s frustration with class artfully. 

(Jake Gyllenhaal, Seo-hyun Ahn, Tilda Swinton and Bong Joon-ho during the photocall for Okja at Cannes Film Festival in 2017)

A few years later, when Bong Joon-ho made Okja, he put his penchant for satire out there. Okja is about a genetically modified super pig, a nasty multi national corporation’s intellectual property, and a young girl Mila’s best friend. Bong takes his command over visual effects further in creating Okja, large, lumbering yet irresistibly lovable. Loyal and kind, this animal has a soul. It is not just meat. For Mila, battling to rescue Okja, her simple search crosses paths with inefficient animal rights activists and the chilly, unsympathetic corporation headed by a creepy, brilliant Tilda Swinton. In this active scene of a quest and chase, conversations around scientific ethics and genetically modified meat make for interesting interludes. Bong Joon-ho clearly detests genetically modified food and the processed food industry for the damage it does to humans and to the environment. That he also dislikes the hectic greed and ambition ruling mega cities is evident in his visual demarcation of beautiful, serene life in the countryside, where Mile and Okja live; and life in fast paced, relentless New York City. Once again, his visual storytelling does volumes of talking in a film where dialogues are sparse and an important global message so visible. 

Critics and industry experts have compared Bong Joon-ho to Steven Spielberg and Alfonso Cuaron. While the Korean filmmaker has steered clear from magnificent storylines and scaled up movies, his stories bridge multiple genres to tell a humane, touching tale. These are cinematic experiences, bridging cultural and linguistic divides. There’s film and then there’s art. Bong Joon-ho’s films are what define post modern art that impacts everyone in our plastic stuffed, environmentally compromised world.


Bong Joon-ho / Parasite / Gisaengchung / Okja / Snowpiercer / Memories of Murder / Mother / Korean / Palme d'Or / Cannes Film Festival / Netflix

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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