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With its real-world messaging, ‘Okja’ and director Bong Joon-ho tap into something special

Director Bong Joon-ho turned vegan after visiting a slaughterhouse before making “Okja,” but it lasted only two months. “I live in South Korea,” he said. “Korea is BBQ paradise.”
(Stephanie Cornfield / For The Times)

Netflix is known for not only keeping the streaming numbers for its programs and original films from the public, but often from the showrunners and movie directors who create the content as well. In theory, you’d think that would mean South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho has little evidence as to whether his film “Okja,” which was released on the streaming service in June, has been watched as much as his previous two global hits, “The Host” and “Snowpiercer.” But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Sitting at a conference table in a hotel ballroom here, he pulls out his phone and starts searching Instagram for images inspired by the adorable super-pig Okja and Mija, the Korean girl who loves her.

“People upload fan art of Okja and Mija. There’s so much of it and a lot of crew members send it saying, ‘Oh, there are fans all over the world that watched the movie,’” Bong says through an interpreter. The text accompanying the art, he says, “is sometimes Portuguese, sometimes Japanese.”

To elicit such a powerful reaction, Bong spent six months working with a designer to get the gigantic creature at the heart of his film just right.

“The designer is the same guy who did the monster in ‘The Host,’ [Hee Chul Jang],” Bong says. “He’s really talented and it was a very interesting process during screenwriting. Then we moved to the CG version, so it was really lucky that [we] met Erik-Jan De Boer who was the VFX supervisor for Richard Parker, the tiger in ‘Life of Pi.’

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“What I was going for was that the animal had to be big in size but the feeling and the look that it gave off had to be innocent and vulnerable. A feeling that it wouldn’t necessarily harm others, but it would be harmed by others.”

Addressing themes of the environment, animal rights and hard-core capitalism, the film’s villain is the fictional company behind Okja and other genetically engineered animals, the Miranda Corporation, led by the not-so mentally stable CEO Lucy Miranda, played big by Tilda Swinton. The company wants to round up the creatures for inspection and potential harvesting.

So while Okja needed to look cute and sympathetic while on the run, Bong didn’t want it to appear unrealistically cartoonish. Audiences needed to believe that such an animal might exist somewhere in the world. But how to accomplish this? The visual effects team had an answer — give it eyes inspired by a beagle.

“Okja’s eyes, how clear they are, the innocence, the kindness within that’s embedded in her eyes,” Bong says. “Many people have a puppy. It was the most efficient, easy and simple way for the audience to really feel for Okja.”

Not everything was so well-planned from the start. “Something developed during the storyboard process,” Bong says. “The moment where Mija brushes Okja’s teeth in her house? That was an idea presented by the production team and the VFX team working together.”

Other memorable artistic collaborations find Mija sleeping on Okja as the latter rolls over onto its back or when the super-pig stumbles crossing a creek and Mija looks back to see if it’s OK. That particular moment was just one that came from unexpected interactions between young actress Ahn Seo-hyun and Stephen Clee, the visual effects animation supervisor who stood in for the CG Okja on set much of the time.

The heart of Bong’s epic wouldn’t be as impactful though if it didn’t take the issue of global food production so seriously. “There’s an expression that the moment we create a slaughterhouse out of glass, everybody in the whole world would become vegan,” Bong says. “What the food industry is always trying to do is try to thicken the walls of the slaughterhouse so that nobody can peer inside it.”

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