If you happen to be on the internet, chances are you have just survived the marketing blitz for Netflix’s recent project Okja. Directed by acclaimed Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho and featuring a star-cast of Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano and Jake Gyllenhaal, a mysterious animal and a sci-fi premise, the film seems to have all the trappings of a typical Hollywood creature feature. After all, this film is from the same director who also made The Host (2006) [however, those who know the acclaimed Korean director only through the monster-attack film have missed out on one of the best collection of movies by a director on a trot]. Bong Joon-Ho delivers a touching film about the relationship between a young girl and her animal friend. Okja offers satirical glimpses at corporate politics, the harsh realities of large scale animal farming and animal abuse, and the cynicism with which activism is comparably positioned with the industries themselves. Like his 2013 film Snowpiercer, Joon-Ho’s film offers a bleak world divided along class, geographical privilege and crucially, the randomness of birth. The melancholy in his films invite reflection and horror. This post takes a quick look at four films which unsettle narrative closure to leave the audience with questions rather than satisfaction.
THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS.
(MOST SPOILER-HEAVY SECTION) Consider these four frames:
- A police officer returns to a scene of crime after 17 years, and looks at the ditch where the first murder took place, reflecting on the fact that they never caught the murderer.
- An elderly woman dances in a field to music with a remarkable sadness in her eyes, when she comes to terms with the truth about her son’s innocence.
- A young woman and a child exit a perpetually moving train after it has crashed to a halt to find themselves in a frozen world and see a polar bear at a distance.
- A young girl has successfully bargained for the life of her animal companion, while similar intelligent animals are designated for the slaughterhouse.
(END OF MOST SPOILER-HEAVY SECTION)
All these scenes are loaded with triumph and sorrow. The characters have failed in what they intended to achieve, and yet they have attained a fulfillment which brings them to rest in their minds. Their character’s story arc gets completed, even though none of these films allow their respective narratives to come to a successful completion. The director’s visual style has changed from one film to another, but his laconic storytelling remains central to his filmmaking. His stories seem to ask after our own discomfort – what does it mean when we feel so conflicted about the choices made by the characters? What does it say when we dread the uncertainties that the characters face in their future? These narratives achingly reach for the viewers’ concern for the characters and raise a grain of unease in our minds. The films do not answer any of these questions –they quietly raises a finger to point to those people that we know who also live in similar worlds.
Bong Joon-Ho’s command over subtle use of visual grammar in the 2003 masterpiece Memories of Murder and its spiritual sequel Mother from 2009 prevents us from getting too relaxed while watching the them. Instead, we feel disquieted with the gentle flow of the narrative, which keeps preparing us for a dramatic jolt. While it is expected to see characters are challenged by the significance of their choices, these films push the audience to weigh the significance as well. Both films develop the audience relationship with the characters and their goals to a point where the resolution seems inevitable. And yet, the ultimate ending, while consistent with the narrative world, offers no solace to the characters. Similarly, in Snowpiercer and Okja, the success of the characters have come at a high price and their future remains uncertain regardless of the immediate outcomes the encounter.
The South Korean filmmaker’s measured pace and introspective narratives have been extensively discussed and praised. What I enjoy the most about his work is the sense of incompleteness that prevents the films from fully slipping away from your mind. Instead, the films linger with you, challenging your understanding of how narratives work, and mildly chiding you for your certainties about people and their behavior. The behavior of people who encounter situations way beyond the scope of their ability is perfectly captured in 2003’s Memories of Murder. When three under-prepared police officers try to solve a mystery while contending with an incompetent working environment, they elicit the audiences’ sympathy and anger at the same time. Their motivations may spring from a righteous desire to bring a murderer to justice, and yet their repeated failure seems a fair reward to their working methods. In Mother, we see an exceptional circumstance that stretch the limits of the everyday relationship between mother and son.
The most compelling aspect of these films to me, is not their ability to present a deep discomfort, but in the gentle humor they incorporate throughout the narratives. Tilda Swinton’s monstrous villain in Okja is prone to excesses that reveals her desire to be appreciated in comparison to her sister. The steely-eyed Giancarlo Esposito also plays a humorous turn involving a cup of coffee while delivering some classic supervising henchman role. In Snowpiercer, there are a plenty of terse moments undercut with double-take inducing gag-shots. And perhaps unforgettably, an interrogation scene in Memories of Murder begins with one of the policemen landing a near flawless dropkick to a suspect – knocking the breath out of the audience with surprise as well as laughter. The blend of humor and the inescapable atmosphere of horror elevate these films to near perfection. In moments of failure, of coming to terms with your grief or irredeemable position, of contemplating the significance of the greater world that is either altered or untouched by your individual actions – these films think visually and convey the most intimate human stories.
SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.