Okja, Snowpiercer and the Pseudo Foreign Film
'The unprecedented success of Bong Joon Ho and his masterpiece Parasite is an amazing way for people to start to realise the treasure trove that is Foreign Film and what better place to start than his other films.'
Foreign film can feel daunting! There are unknown actors, different cultures and the scariest thing to ever happen to film: subtitles! Are Foreign Films worth the effort of watching them? This 'one inch wall' certainly puts people off exploring the deep and wonderful library of Foreign Films that are out there. The unprecedented success of Bong Joon Ho and his masterpiece Parasite is an amazing way for people to start to realise the treasure trove that is Foreign Film and what better place to start than his other films.
Bong Joon Ho directed two Western films, Snowpiercer (2013) and one for Netflix (Okja, 2017). These two fall into a category I’ve called pseudo Foreign Film. They have Western leads who speak English, acting alongside lesser known South Korean actors, who are of course subtitled. This mix is a wonderful way to be eased into the world of foreign film. There is some familiar ground, but it is challenged and pushed by the other cultures it touches upon and the other languages included. For those who struggle with the concept of foreign films, this is the perfect way in!
It is 2031 and all of humanity have frozen to death! There is one train of survivors. The concern surrounding rising temperatures on earth led to an experiment that would have lowered it and reduced the dangers affecting the planet. But, the plan failed plunging the globe into a new Ice Age. The only haven is the train - a microcosm of society and all that is left. Curtis (Chris Evans) leads a revolt from the back of the train (the slums) with only one goal: to fight their way through the train to the engine room dethroning the ruling classes in the process. He fights against train owner Wilford (Ed Harris) and Mason (Tilda Swinton) who is the mouthpiece for the ruling class. He enlists the help of Minsoo Namgoong (Kang Ho Song) to help him on this quest.
The idea of class struggle and revolt is not original, but Bong Joon Ho's setting is. The claustrophobic train created incredible and original fight scenes that awe and shock you as an audience. Bong Joon Ho can do anything with a camera and his technique turns everything he touches to gold. The fight for the water carriage is simply astonishing, the lighting and the tight confined space of the train makes for incredibly special shots that are hard to describe. All I can say is you will have to watch for yourself! The magic of this film is embodied by this 10 minute segment; it has everything in it and the film is worth watching just for this one moment.
The Western actors are brilliant and Kang Ho Song (who is also in Parasite) is amazing as the quiet but mysterious train architect. Snowpiercer is brutal in parts, touching and emotional in others and while some moments do not hit quite as well as they could, it is an amazing film with an interesting story.
This a fantastic pseudo foreign film to get you started on your journey through different countries and cultures. There are massive names that you will definitely recognise (two of the leads stars are in the MCU!) and the story feels familiar but with new elements and actors that spice it up. Snowpiercer will ease you into the world of foreign film, it plays out as an action piece but with social and environmental commentary. It appeals to an audience on multiple levels and it is on Amazon Prime now. An easy watch and only a couple of clicks away.
Okja is the story of Mija (Seo-hyun Ahn) and her pet and best friend. The young girl receives the Super Pig Okja from Western corporation Mirando when she is very young and the two grow up together on their isolated and rural mountain, Okja is raised and nursed to adulthood alongside Mija and by Mija. Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) has the idea that the Super Pigs can help her re-brand the company she owns, the Pigs are environmentally friendly and provide tasty meat for market. However, Mirando's glossy corporate image has a twisted underbelly; it is completely rotten, dominated by greed and one of the most inhumane examples of animal cruelty for profit that I have ever seen in film. When Mirando comes for Okja, Mija gives chase becoming a weapon for animal right activist Jay (Paul Dano). This heart wrenching tale of friendship between sentient animal and human is extremely, extremely hard to watch and not for the faint hearted! It tells a story that is not in mainstream media and makes you think, reconsidering stances on eating mass-produced non-free range animal products and even meat in general.
This film is typical of Bong Joon Ho, a classic even! The first half is heart-warming and hilarious at points (the chase through downtown Seoul is a real gem) and in the second half it just completely flips. It is dark, unsettling, cruel and hard to bear. Throughout Bong has an original narrative that is vitally important and highly critical of the Western model of consumption. Consumerism criticised and explored in such a raw manner is something that I have not seen before. The animation of Okja is wonderful and the shots of her playing with Mija in the mountains of South Korea are enchanting and showcase the frankly beautiful nature of the environment untouched by human hands. The relationship between child and animal even more so!!
Seo Hyun Ahn is amazing as Mija and provides much of the drive for this film. The emotional beats hit hard and you root for her and her fight to just get back her friend. Tilda Swinton is great to watch as the seemingly good Lucy Mirando, she is nuanced and has depth in her character emphasising the immense amount of pressure her character is under to succeed. Her evil streak is only hinted at until late into the film. This helps keep the suspense alive and you never really see the brutal twists coming until the knife is already lodged deep in your gut. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) makes you feel like you need a long shower, he is despicable and disgusting. I have a strong hatred for him which only highlights the wonderful acting job that he did.
Once again, there are massive Western names in this film and much of the second half is set in America. However, the inclusion of Mija helps this film feel global expanding its critical message of corporate greed and stench. The performance from Seo is endearing and wonderful and this pseudo foreign film showcases her talents to great effect. This film feels much more foreign than Snowpiercer but is just as easy to get into!! However, be very aware of how uncomfortable the second half of the film is, it should come with a trigger warning. I cannot express enough how important it is to mentally prepare for the vital and important message it conveys, and it does not pull any punches conveying it. This film is on Netflix now.
I think it is very important to support smaller film industries and to have a deeper understanding of foreign cultures and films. Bong Joon Ho fills his films with important critical commentaries on society and corporate greed and consumerism in Okja is brutal to watch. Depending on your taste in film and your stomach for watching unsettling scenes, these two films bridge the gap between the unknown scary world of foreign film and the more comfortable and safe Western world. I loved these two films and believe they are fantastic watches and great ways to taste how you feel about foreign film.
Photo 1 and 2: Snowpiercer Photo 3 and 4: Okja