Bong Joon-ho’s Okja (2017) hops across genres and moods.1 Part Lassie Come Home (Fred M. Wilcox, 1943) with a girl and her giant pig instead of a boy and his loyal dog; part Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985), also a comic and nightmarish sci-fi; part Capitalism, a Love Story (Michael Moore, 2009) for its lessons in greed, with Tilda Swinton playing twin heads of a transnational biotech corporation; it pleads a serious case for animal rights and vegetarianism as well. A girl and her grandfather raise piglet Okja for ten years in the remote Korean mountains, whereupon the corporation that spawned this new breed of “super-pig” (which looks more like a large hippo) designed to feed the world at a great profit, takes the grown pig away. Mija’s quest to recover her dear Okja eventually leads to the immense slaughterhouse that cuts up and packages the creatures, and once the audience has fallen for Okja, the sight is horrifying. There is so much going on in Okja that audiences might be forgiven for not consciously noticing its music.
Bong has an eccentric genius for songs and scoring. I can think of few other living directors who make musical choices that are as boldly unconventional. His predecessor with this indefinable knack for music, Stanley Kubrick, could make the “wrong” music seem not only right but iconic, forever soldered to his crisp and startling images. For 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), he famously forsook the woo-woo theremins and otherworldly tonalities that usually accompanied sci-fi films in favor of Herbert von Karajan’s lush orchestral version of Strauss’s “Blue Danube” waltz, transforming interplanetary travel into an elegant ballet. The opening of The Shining (1980), tracing a yellow Volkswagen bug’s journey through towering mountainous terrain toward the remote and creepy Overlook Hotel, has no grand orchestral announcement of the landscape; instead, Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s reimagining of the thirteenth-century “Dies Irae” ushers in the action in ominous low brassy synthesized tones.
Similarly, Bong goes musically hog wild in this pig movie. When the apotheosis arrives halfway through the film, it is with a song. A detachment of goons from the Mirando corporation are madly chasing after the country-girl Mija and her porcine companion, and what sounds like some kind of Balkan klezmer bullfighting music accompanies the pursuit through the streets of Seoul.2 The chase turns into a rampage through an underground shopping mall where Mija has taken Okja to hide (in vain). Bong suddenly shifts the visuals into slow motion: the Balkan trumpets cease and the soothing romantic strains of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” (1974) fade in. Denver croons (“You fill up my senses…”) over the next three bizarre minutes of frenetic action.
It is one thing to accept funky brass music for a chase above ground through the city: the trumpets have broken out as the big truck spiriting Okja toward her processed-meat American destiny negotiates its turns and Mija, improbably and heroically, races through the narrow streets to keep up. She manages to jump onto the semi and cling to it, and with the help of a band of clever yet bumbling masked animal-liberationists, she escapes on foot with Okja. The hyperactive trumpets help turn all this action into burlesque, even though the audience might not wish to feel humor at all while rooting for Mija and Okja, in their desperation to escape the death grip of global capitalism.
It’s entirely another thing to hear “Annie’s Song,” which stops you in your tracks. Almost every review of Okja mentions this outlandish pairing of music and visuals—how not to?—but no critic knows quite what to say about it.3 Flummoxed, they resort to such phrases as “for some reason” and “‘Annie’s Song’ inexplicably plays,” abdicating their critical function. It is always worth investigating anything over which reviewers go tongue-tied. They cite the “great use” or “striking” presence of the song or, at most, note only that it “clashes” with the scene. Some refer to John Denver’s love song as schlock; in 1974, it certainly was, but its sappiness is irrelevant to the use being made of it here. What follows, then, is my attempt to explain its effectiveness.
First, the context: it is the middle of the key chase through the city. The Balkan trumpets lend a visceral sense of bullfight ritual to the pursuit of the galumphing creature. Bong is clearly going not only for the tension of the sequence and the pathos of mutual girl-pig loyalty but also for laughs, or at least titters.4 Once Mija steers Okja down steps into the underground mall, still to the trumpet music, Bong steers the scene into comedy: he shows a teenaged mallrat, a girl with a strap-on pig snout and ears, scampering and shooting a selfie with Okja at the same time. The subterranean mall is well populated with shoppers, all flustered by the large creature coursing through the crowded aisles. As people flee right and left, Mija yanks Okja away at the last possible second to prevent the trampling of a lady in a wheelchair.
The music goes suddenly silent, and in slow motion the redirected momentum of Okja’s bulk smashes everything to smithereens in a crowded shop. A moment of stillness, and then “Annie’s Song” starts. Still in slow motion, the ragtag members of the Animal Liberation Front shield Okja and Mija from the corporate police who arrive on the scene to shoot tranquilizer darts. One of the masked activists pulls a yellow glass shard from Okja’s bleeding foot as Mija looks on, stricken. The visuals resume normal speed and somehow pig, girl, and activists escape into the underground parking lot and jump onto their waiting truck, foiling pursuers again, not with violence but with a bag of ball bearings scattered onto the pavement. “Annie’s Song” ends with the truck’s escape. The day has been saved (for now).
And the question remains: what does the John Denver tune contribute to the action?
At first blush, the song’s lyrics might be considered outlandishly inappropriate. So calm, “like a sleepy blue ocean,” the song has simple, soothing lyrics and consonant harmonies. But consider being sentimental for a moment (and the song is nothing if not sentimental). “Annie’s Song” is there to envelop the frenetic visual action in love. Mija’s and Okja’s self-appointed protectors have arrived to rescue them; Mija is not alone; the pig, in pain from the sharp object in her foot, gets relief; human kindness prevails. Introduced into a wild action scene, then, the song overlays it with warmth and redemption. The lyrics express love through nature imagery (forests, mountains, springtime, rain, desert, ocean) while onscreen the detritus of commercial culture takes the form of heaps of garishly lit merchandise-turned-trash. The song helps to set up the brutal duality of Okja as sylvan soulmate versus Okja as profit source and works to reinforce the former. Further, as a love song, it offsets the high-speed visual action spectacle, slowing it down and insisting that Mija and Okja have inner lives and feelings.
As with so many movie songs, nostalgia is at work here, both for viewers and for the director. John Denver, the multi-hit country boy of the 1970s with sunshine on his shoulders, mythologized the simple purity of nature; some would say his music was nostalgic even in its own time. In the age before AutoTune, Denver’s voice and instrumental arrangements were uncannily on pitch, making for perfectly engineered art-songs masquerading as folksiness. He sang of a nature that is not just pretty but deeply prelapsarian—unlike Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” of the same year, with its white nationalist lyrics.Director Bong, for his part, cites a personal nostalgic connection to “Annie’s Song.” When he was a child, his older brother listened to it incessantly, and so, perforce, did he:
[W]hen I was a little kid my older brother was a huge fan of that song. He repeated that song, humming and would keep playing, playing, playing it. At that time, I was a little bit sick of that song. But it’s a nostalgic song. And suddenly, during the editing process when the moment of the slow motion begins, suddenly I was reminded of the song.5
The contrast between the song’s tone and lyrics against the force of the chase is only one of the sequence’s ironies. The construction of Okja as an object of nostalgia, and as the quintessence of nature (ironically, since in reality the pig is an entirely digital creation) and simplicity and goodness, also serves to deepen by contrast the evils of capitalism (again, ironically, since Bong’s movie is financed by global capitalism), an opposition embodied in the breakneck chase through the mall.
The song’s nostalgia applies to Mija, too. Okja’s bucolic opening showed Mija and Okja in their mountain forest home, taking care of each other. In fact, this sequence of the girl and pig can be seen as one of the great movie love stories. Okja helps Mija catch fish for dinner, and she even saves Mija’s life in a moving act of self-sacrifice, aided by preternatural intelligence. All in a day’s work. It includes a detail that could be easily forgotten: in the forest Mija pulls a prickly seed-case out of Okja’s foot where it has gotten stuck. This moment could well be what crosses Mija’s mind during the mall attack, as she watches activist Jay remove the bloody glass shard from Okja’s foot.
However much it seems at cross-purposes with the depth of emotion and the political sympathies it evokes, the song-image combination of “Annie’s Song” at the mall also can be quite funny, as when the lyrics comment comically on the action. Denver’s first line, “You fill up my senses,” is timed to coincide with the animal liberationists’ spraying of the cops with some substance (tear gas?) that momentarily overwhelms and disarms them. Moreover, the song’s very last two lines, “You fill up my senses, / Come fill me again,” are heard as the good guys escape on their truck, with one last remaining pursuer on foot racing through the tunnel after them. Mija resorts to a secret weapon: she can make Okja defecate at will by patting the pig’s rear. On cue, Okja poops fecal missiles out the back of the semi, pelting the Mirando corporation bureaucrat, whose senses are thus filled by the malodorous ammunition that has landed all over his clothes.
Bong has frequently employed songs cleverly in his films, but never in as deep and many-layered way as in Okja. Consider Snowpiercer (2013), his sci-fi apocalyptic vision, which contains two notable songs. One conveys a marvelous indictment of indoctrination through propaganda. Beaming upper-class kindergarteners belt out the nursery-song anthem to their Train and its great Leader: “What happens if the engine stops? We all freeze and die!” Snowpiercer‘s other song is heard nondiegetically, in the sequence when the revolutionaries advance to a train car devoted to the production of the nauseating jelly-like blue “protein blocks,” the sole food of the masses who are confined to the rear of the train. Cream’s drug-rock song “Strange Brew” (1967) plays in the background. Its lyrics now apply specifically to this food: “Strange brew, killing what’s inside of you / She’s a witch of trouble in electric blue.”
This appropriation of a popular song could be termed “tagging”—that is, using the title or main lyrics to apply superficially to images or action onscreen. Movie accompanists in the silent era deployed songs this way as a matter of course, as a kind of aural subtitling and often as witty commentary. The technique still shows up today. In The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015), for instance, the astronaut stranded on Mars resourcefully repurposes some nuclear fuel to power a vehicle, as the soundtrack plays Donna Summer’s hit “Hot Stuff” (1979); at the end, when he’s been rescued, over the credits plays Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem “I Will Survive” (1978).
Pursuing Bong’s particular use of songs in his oeuvre might unearth other surprises, but there is a still deeper auteurist vein to be mined for further insight on how “Annie’s Song” works in Okja. In the mysteriously sublime opening of Bong’s earlier Mother (2010), an older woman, completely alone in a field of tall grass, walks distractedly toward the camera. She starts swaying, then dancing, as a gentle rhythm followed by a hauntingly beautiful piece for guitar and string orchestra insinuates itself onto the soundtrack (let’s call it the Main Theme). As if no one is looking, Mother enters wholeheartedly into her interpretive dance to the guitar theme. How can she hear it? Where is it coming from? Her own head? A source offscreen? Or the impossible-but-probable: this woman in the middle of nowhere is dancing to nondiegetic music, music from nowhere.
When the film moves on to its main story involving Mother, her son, and the mystery of a killing in their provincial town, it would be understandable to forget the haunting opening that came before. But as the story draws toward its close almost two hours later, there goes Mother, walking through the very field seen in the opening, and this time, her situation makes narrative sense. (A single, reverberant danso or traditional Korean flute plays.) The insanely devoted mom-turned-Oedipal-detective has by now not only solved the case of the dead schoolgirl, but along the way has herself committed a second murder. In the final scene, she is riding in a sightseeing bus full of happy older ladies on vacation who are dancing and whooping in the aisle. In a futile effort to forget the horrors she has experienced, Mother, still in her seat, inserts an acupuncture needle in her thigh, and all the music goes silent. When she joins the women dancing in the aisle, the haunting guitar theme plays on the soundtrack, as if in her head.
This sequence is worth describing in detail because of what it shows of Bong’s relationship to both Mother’s Main Theme and Okja’s “Annie’s Song.” Mother’s culmination leaves the heroine mired in dread, loss, and unfathomable guilt. Bong’s cinematic imagination leads the viewer to identify with this feeling—the certainty that all is lost—the sort of stop-the-clocks feeling that arrives if your spouse gets killed in war or a terrorist attack, when your parent is clinging to life one moment and then dies the next, when you are caught (or catch yourself) having committed an unpardonable act. The opening shows Mother abandoning herself to the music—not, as it becomes clear at the end, because she’s a hip older woman and interpretive dancer, but rather because she is enmeshed in an effort to lose herself, to forget, or at least to comfort herself for the unspeakable things she has done. The film ends with Mother on the bus dancing to her own tune, the beautiful guitar theme. The point is not that the music works, for nothing can comfort her. Rather, the music’s presence emphasizes ironically that any such comfort or redemption is impossible. And what an awful feeling this produces—when music, whose function is so frequently to comfort, fails utterly to do so.
For me, the mall scene in Okja works in the same way. Though some viewers might want to feel that the animal liberationists are heroes and that “Annie’s Song” envelops Mija in the warm embrace of safety, the stunned look on Mija’s face says otherwise. She has contributed, willingly or not, to the betrayal of Okja, having (however powerlessly) allowed her to be hauled away from innocence and safety to an odyssey that will stop only a few seconds shy of Okja’s slaughter in a nightmarish Auschwitz-for-pigs. In the mall, Mija witnesses her beloved Okja bleeding, felled in the hellish chase. For Mija, as for Mother, all is lost—or at least it feels that way. “Annie’s Song” evokes a utopia that’s impossible now, when the reality of civilization has more to do with greed, death, and stupidity. The comforting music that cannot comfort, its presence underscores the absence of any such salve.
“Annie’s Song” seems superficially to overlay the mall sequence with love and humanity. But Mija’s stricken face, the bloody shard, and the ironic memory of a foot that was easily mended suggest that everything is falling apart, and the stomach-turning tension of the last-second escape from the mall further shatters any sense of peace.
The critics, therefore, have good reason to find it difficult to lasso “the” meaning of the song as Bong deploys it. They are at a loss for words, you might say, because so much happens in this interaction between a scene and the music that goes with it. Recent cinema has other spectacular examples of very rich uses of songs: there is the convoluted interaction of lyrics and characters’ expressions at the dinner table in The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010) as Annette Bening tunelessly sings Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want” (1971) with Mark Ruffalo; Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies (2010) opens with Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army?” (2001) heard over a haunting scene of children being groomed to fight in an unnamed war-torn Mideast country, and the song resonates through the story that follows. But Okja goes even beyond this richness. “Annie’s Song” acts as a Trojan horse of affect, and thereby represents a revolutionary instance of movie song. Its promise stands as unattainable, even despite the film’s nominally happy ending. Mixing genres throughout, Bong has chosen to remain faithful to comedy and fantasy conventions for this ending, rather than hew to the murky demands of horror or Holocaust film. Everything is set right again, and the family is restored to its mountain aerie. The final scene’s new hope, tranquility, and sheer cuteness almost allow us to forget the greed and carnage down there in civilization.
1. Along with Noah Baumbach’s Meyerowitz Stories (2017), Okja opened by streaming on Netflix, which financed it, rather than making its debut in a traditional theatrical release. Although the 2017 Cannes Film Festival screened Okja in competition for the Palme d’Or, the controversy over its status led the festival to determine subsequently that films with no theatrical release would be barred from competition beginning in 2018.
2. The Macedonian Dzambo Agusevi Orchestra wrote and recorded the Balkan cues for Okja; principal scoring credit goes to young composer-songwriter Jung Jaeil.
3. “Bong soundtracks a scene of pratfall mass destruction in an underground mall with John Denver’s shlock classic ‘Annie’s Song,’ in a tonal clash that could be the envy of any number of stylish young pastiche directors.” Kaitlyn Tiffany, “Okja is the first great Netflix movie–here’s why that matters,” Verge, June 26, 2017, www.theverge.com/2017/6/26/15747466/netflix-okja-bong-joon-ho-snowpiercer-cannes-hollywood. “During an escape sequence, Okja rains down poop pellets on a pursuer as John Denver’s Annie’s Song inexplicably plays in the background.” Brian Truitt, “Review: ‘Okja’ spins intriguing but erratic tale of a girl and a super-pig,” USA Today, June 27, 2017, www.usatoday.com/story/life/movies/2017/06/27/review-okja-movie/103209668/.“A superbly staged truck chase through Seoul, climaxing with Okja smashing up a subterranean shopping mall to the ironic strains of John Denver’s sappy pop classic ‘Annie’s Song,’ provides one of the film’s set-piece action highlights.” Stephen Dalton, “‘Okja’: Film Review,” Hollywood Reporter, May 19, 2017, www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/okja-review-1005403. “Bong has proved his circus-ringmaster’s skill at madcap action sequences in the past, and proves it again, with a chase through a Seoul shopping mall, capped by a great use of John Denver’s Annie’s Song, an especially popping highlight.” Tim Robey, “Okja review: Bong Joon-ho’s daffy anti-meat monster mash is Beethoven with bacon,” Telegraph, May 29, 2017, www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/okja-review-bong-joon-hos-daffy-anti-meat-monster-mash-beethoven/. Eric Kohn remarks upon “one of the most striking moments in Bong’s entire career — a slow-mo battle set to John Denver’s ‘You Fill Up My Senses,’ which finds the ALF forming a wall of umbrellas to defend a cornered Okja while Mija cowers nearby.” Eric Kohn, “‘Okja’ Review: Bong Joon Ho Delivers His ‘E.T.’ With Delightful Tale of a Mutant Pig and the Girl Who Loves Her,” IndieWire, May 19, 2017, www.indiewire.com/2017/05/okja-review-bong-joon-ho-netflix-cannes-1201828663/.
4. Bong’s The Host (2006), scored by Lee Byung-Woo, also has a scene in which music approximates this Balkan idiom: it occurs when the family escapes the authorities in a van to try to find their young relative trapped in the monster’s grip (and recurs with the end credits as well). The style seems to speak to Bong as a kind of carnivalesque action music.
5. Mekado Murphy, “Bong Joon-Ho Narrates a Scene from ‘Okja’” (interview with Bong Joon-ho), New York Times, July 3, 2017.
Header Image: Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and Okja in their mountain home.
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