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Okja’s Tilda Swinton and Bong Joon-Ho crafted their greedy capitalist tale long before Trump’s presidency

Photo: Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic. Image: Jane Harrison.
Photo: Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic. Image: Jane Harrison.

This interview contains plot points of the film Okja.

Before The A.V. Club settled down to speak to Tilda Swinton and Bong Joon-Ho about their new film Okja, there was cooing. That’s because Swinton had just given this reporter permission to “cuddle” a rotund, pink, stuffed version of the eponymous super-pig—or one of her brethren—while conducting the interview at a New York hotel earlier this month.

Indeed, Okja herself is a remarkable, sweet creature—with the demeanor of a hyper-intelligent puppy—but the movie is more than a huggable romp. Rather, it’s about the villainy of a corporation willing to do anything for a buck. Swinton plays Lucy Mirando—as well as her twin sister, Nancy. Upon taking over her nasty father’s company, Lucy announces a contest called the Super Pig Project whereby piggies are sent to farmers around the world and the best one will be crowned the winner 10 years later. Flash forward, and Okja the pig has developed a friendship with Mija (Ahn Seo Hyun), who lives with her grandfather in South Korea. But their idyllic life is disturbed when Mirando comes to reclaim Okja, who is just a piece of meat to the corporation’s minions and a symbol to an activist group like the Animal Liberation Front.

While The A.V. Club stroked the plush Okja toy, we asked Bong—speaking at times through a translator—and Swinton about devising Lucy and her severe counterpart Nancy’s bizarre demeanors and whether or not the movie promotes veganism.

The A.V. Club: You have created together these wonderfully horrifying characters.

Bong Joon-Ho: A very good expression.

Tilda Swinton: Proud to serve. Wonderfully horrifying. I’m very happy with that.

AVC: When you’re devising these characters, how much is on the page? How much are you building them together? How much while you’re on set?

TS: With the Mirandos, we started talking before there was a script. Because my way of thinking of Lucy is that she’s really a fool. She’s a fool. She’s wrong. Really pathetic and flawed and weak, and not a mustache-twirling villain who knows that she’s bad. She’s not powerful, in fact. We began this sort of inquiry when we were making Snowpiercer with [Swinton’s character] Mason. We liked to look at the way in which Mason, who was a kind of construct, had this innate weakness inside. We liked the idea with this film of taking that portrait and splitting that apart and looking at the two faces of it. So we started with that. We started with the weakness.

BJH: Like Mason in Snowpiercer, actually she developed, she created in many aspects, her own character. I just throw her the very basic concept: “Tilda, this time you’re twins, and they are the two faces of capitalism.” Then details come pouring out of her, very startling and fascinating details, such as Nancy’s neck pillow that she carries around with her.

TS: Incredibly important. And now I see them everywhere, by the way. Now I see people everywhere with these neck pillows.

AVC: Lucy has braces at the beginning. And then there’s the femininity of Lucy’s attire, the pinkness.

TS: We established that we wanted to look at these two faces of capitalism. So the idea was that the father was a real proper, proper monster and that Nancy’s the apple that hasn’t fallen far from the tree. She’s carrying the flame forward of proper, unashamed horribleness. So the idea was that Lucy was a reaction to that. That gave us a clear direction. She was going to pitch herself 180 degrees away from Nancy and her father.

And the braces? We wanted to look at something quite infantile. I liked the idea that she was somehow emotionally stultified. Funnily enough, we had this idea three or four years ago—of her having this rather unstable, this rather upsetting relationship with her father, and there would be photographs widely available of her on the knee of her powerful father when she was a young girl. So this was an idea we played with about four years ago, and then we realized, of course, that these photographs actually exist of living people. So this idea—being an infantile heiress—and the braces was about the idea of the project being 10 years. That she was preparing herself for this great moment—her big, big moment on the stage in 10 years time. So she was going to get her teeth straight. So the braces first and then of course by the time we catch up to her big triumphant moment, her teeth are all sparkling and new.

BJH: We discussed a lot about Nancy as well, the different details. Her weird aggressiveness that she has, hostility.

TS: She’s a gangster.

BJH: And the feeling that her voice carries when she shouts, “Fuck off.” And that shout and that voice had to overwhelm the slaughterhouse.

AVC: I presume you were referencing the Trump family?

TS: Well, you might presume that, but you have to remember that we were planning this film longer. So our conjecture is that the Trump organization must have hacked into our dailies and stolen our looks. Let’s get the chronology correct. Since we are now in the era of needing to get the chronology correct.

AVC: Along those lines, there is a theme of dressing up—

TS: I think the theme of inheritance is really important. We had a very great moment when we started talking with Jon Ronson, who wrote the script with director Bong in the early days when we had a big Skype call. Do you remember when we were in Seoul and we talked with Jon Ronson? And I said I really think the film is about inheritance and how is it possible to be the heir of a toxic corporation and deal with some kind of fake wokeness. Is it possible? I would suggest no. It’s a hiding to nothing, and if you are going to continue to try to make as much money as possible and exploit as many people as you can, then you are riding the devil’s horse.

AVC: One of the themes in both this and Snowpiercer is the disgusting aspects of human consumption, and what people will do to consume. You are talking about the evils of capitalism here. Do you see the film as anti-meat-eating as well?

BJH: Actually in the movie, Mija is not vegan.

TS: Her favorite food is chicken. But the chickens, she lives with them, and she has a different relationship with meat.

BJH: So within the grand scheme of nature, [I] don’t oppose eating animals. Humans have been eating animals for a very long time, thousands and thousands of years. Even animals eat animals. These factories that process meat products in a mass factory scale have just been a very recent endeavor. It’s not really a problem with humans eating meat or the habit of eating meat. It’s a problem with the mass production and how we treat animals in the era of capitalism.

TS: It’s about denial. The ways in which we are encouraged to just not employ consciousness about our relationship to the planet and to all beings in it whether they are non-human or human and what we put in our bodies. The way in which we are encouraged to think of ourselves not as human beings or even customers but consumers. As Nancy says, “If it’s cheap, they’ll eat it.” That whole paradigm, I think, is really what we’re looking at. And Mija and Okja as our kind of avatars in the film—they are awake, they are conscious, they are connected to one another. And they are not cynical, and they haven’t given up.

AVC: Some of the South Korean theater chains don’t want to show the film because of the same-date Netflix release.

BJH: Because the multiplex chains [want Netflix to hold it back three weeks]. I understand their position. But at the same time, this movie was made by the money from the subscribers of Netflix. We have to respect them. They cannot delay. So I understand both. What I want is some more chance to show this not only streaming but also on the big screen. That choice—if audiences can do that—choice is a good thing. And actually we already have more than 60 to 70 theaters that will show Okja on the big screen. And we already have [screens in Korea]. It makes me happy. They are individual theaters, independent theaters. They already have a plan to show this movie on the big screen, and we are very happy with that.