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Found in Translation

How Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Okja’ produced the most realistic Korean American character in film history

(Netflix/Ringer illustration)
(Netflix/Ringer illustration)

This post contains spoilers for Okja, Bong Joon-ho’s film on Netflix.

The pivotal scene in Okja, Bong Joon-ho’s Netflix-produced film about a girl and the genetically-enhanced "super-pig" she loves, is performed in a mishmash of three languages: English, Korean, and Konglish.

In the back of a moving tractor trailer, Animal Liberation Front leader Jay (Paul Dano) is attempting to communicate his crew’s mission to Okja’s owner, a young Korean girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun). To translate his message into Korean, Jay leans on his Korean American colleague, "K" (played by Steven Yeun), to act as an interpreter.

The translation begins smoothly enough, but unravels as Jay’s words become more complex. "For 40 years," says Jay, "our group has liberated animals from places of abuse." A trace of anxiety creeps onto K’s face as his brain processes the vocabulary. He utters: "우리 맨날 해," with a reassuring wave of his hand — slangily: We do this every day. "Is that it?" an incredulous Jay asks K, as Mija looks on apprehensively. (In fact, K’s rewordings will turn out to deliberately not be "it" in a way that has plot-turning ramifications.) Translations, we later learn, are sacred. Yet it is their imperfections that make for a perfectly realized piece of dialogue.

"That was a really surreal experience to film that scene," says Yeun, who told me he actually made his spoken Korean a little worse to play K. "That role can’t even be played by a Korean person who knows how to speak English really well. You literally have to give it to a Korean American," he says. "And it was nice, man, because — that’s the shit we go through, right?"

Okja is an uncommon achievement for a variety of reasons: the technical acuity of Bong’s filmmaking, the allegorical rebuke of the food industry, the film’s unorthodox streaming release, and the kickass force of nature that is Mija. But to me, Okja is exciting for another singularly remarkable feat: It is not only the first major film to seamlessly integrate English and Korean (an estimated 20 percent of the film’s dialogue is in Korean), but it also features what might be the most realistic Korean American character in film history. Indeed, I’d argue the best way to fully appreciate Okja is if you understand both Korean and English — even though it won’t alienate those on either side.

"I remember watching it and thinking," says Yeun, "‘Dude, I’m in the best seat for this movie.’"

Okja is far from the only Korean-directed film to include both English and Korean, and not even the first by Bong. In 2013’s Snowpiercer, Chris Evans and veteran Korean actor Song Kang-ho communicated in their native tongues via voice-translating contraptions that were mysteriously rendered unnecessary by film’s end. There is also a spatter of English dialogue in Bong’s 2006 monster movie, The Host. Beyond Bong, if you’re an Anglophone who’s heard English spoken in a Korean movie, you’ve likely cringed. Hard.

The "new wave" of Korean film traces back to 1999 and the release of the spy action flick Shiri. Prior to that, censorship rules and sparse financing had thwarted Korea’s efforts to build an internationally recognized film industry. But — as explained in Euny Hong’s excellent The Birth of Korean Cool — a strong government push (in the form of a quota limiting foreign film imports and an explosion of investment in infrastructure) helped boost domestic profits and inch Korean cinema toward the global stage. With this groundswell came the rise of homegrown directorial talent like Bong, Kim Ki-duk, Hong Sang-soo, and Park Chan-wook.

As Korean film budgets grew, more expansive plots called for an increasing number of English-speaking, non-Korean roles. One classic example is Joint Security Area, the breakthrough 2000 hit by Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden). The taut political thriller, about relations between North and South Korean soldiers in Korea’s demilitarized zone, is full of superb acting performances — with the notable exception of the choppy, awkward English exchanges in the film’s opening minutes between a Korean Swiss officer (played by Lee Young-ae) and her Swiss colleagues.

As in JSA, the majority of English-speaking roles in Korean film over the past decade have only been means to a narrative end. "In my opinion, the problem has had little to do with English itself, but with Korean nationalism and the resultant inability to write convincing ‘foreign’ characters into their films," says Kyu Hyun Kim, a professor of Asian history at UC Davis. You could hardly blame Korean moviemakers for treating English-speaking characters like an afterthought — until recently, most Korean films were still primarily consumed by Korean audiences who ostensibly wouldn’t care that the English was bad. (Think for a second about the gibberish that passes for Asian languages in many American movies.) Common roles for English speakers in Korean film have been army men (Welcome to Dongmakgol), love interests on foreign soil (Love Talk), or generic Western businessmen (The Taste of Money). In nearly every case, they’ve been filled by no-names whose primary draw is simply being Caucasian.

Of course, stilted English in Korean movies isn’t limited to non-Koreans; when Korean actors themselves are asked to speak English, the results have been just as clumsy. "I think it’s a real challenge for a filmmaker to work with actors who are not speaking in their native language," says Darcy Paquet, who started the essential site koreanfilm.org in 1999 and now teaches at the Busan Asian Film School. "The instinct for a lot of directors is to find someone who speaks English perfectly and to have them write out the dialogue and then to ask the characters to memorize it. The thing is, when the audience senses a gap in the actor’s real ability — and you can feel it through the way they use intonation and their accent and if they speak with perfectly formed sentences — then it just feels really weird." There is an irony here; Korean education emphasizes a mastery of English, but with that comes a neurotic obsession with speaking English flawlessly, which is a hindrance to natural-sounding dialogue. "Actors try their best and they try to be perfect, but sometimes trying too hard to be perfect ends up making it feel awkward," says Paquet. Mimicking broken English, as it turns out, is as challenging as capturing fluency.

Paquet is well-equipped to speak about the use of English in Korean cinema, and not just because he’s a K-film expert. As a result of his friendships with Korean directors, Paquet himself has appeared in Korean films, speaking in both languages. "Eventually they began to call me when they needed a Caucasian actor," he says. His biggest role thus far was as that generic Western businessman in 2012’s The Taste of Money, directed by the esteemed Im Sang-soo. Paquet now calls his appearance "slightly embarrassing," and with all due respect, it is not the performance of a trained actor.

More recently, even the wrangling of a big name hasn’t helped. In 2016, Liam Neeson cashed a presumably large check to play General Douglas MacArthur in Operation Chromite, a portrayal one American critic called "hilariously funny in its tin-eared dialogue and country-pulpit earnestness." One look at the trailer is proof enough.

In truth, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton, and the rest of the non-Korean cast of Okja had a low hurdle to clear. It’s Steven Yeun — speaking English, Korean, and Konglish — who was the key to bridging the lingual gap.

"I think Director Bong is one of a few, if maybe not the only person that could have pulled something like this off," says Yeun. Bong wrote the entire story for Okja, but also enlisted Welsh journalist and screenwriter Jon Ronson to help develop lines for the English-speaking characters. "In terms of fleshing out those parts and working on the dialogue, Jon played a big part in that, because my English is quite limited," the director told Deadline. Bilingual producer Dooho Choi, who collaborated with Bong on both Snowpiercer and Okja, told me that Bong is actually underselling his abilities. "Even though English is his second language, he really understands the nuances of the way people talk," says Choi.

The capital-A actors certainly help bring that understanding to life. That said, despite the precision of the script and the undeniable grandeur of the story, I couldn’t help but find some of the English-speaking performances — Swinton and especially Gyllenhaal, whose eccentric costumes and elaborate mannerisms veer treacherously close to SNL territory — to be a bit overdone. As a Korean American, Yeun had told me, "You’re the best person to watch it. Or maybe the worst person to watch it, I don’t know." I get what he means. To my eyes, the movie loses a bit of steam in its second half when it fully pivots from Korea to America. For the purposes of Bong’s narrative, the corporate overlords are meant to be outlandish caricatures. When juxtaposed with the unfailingly naturalistic acting of the Korean performers, the overacting is jarring, as I’m sure Bong intends it to be. (Compare their acting with that of Yoon Je-moon, who also plays a caricature — that of an ineffectual, glory-hunting company yes-man — only with understated ease.) On its own, the Hollywood hamminess can be distracting and threatens to undermine one of the director’s greatest strengths: realistic, believable human characters.

Which is why Yeun, who was one of the last actors to be cast in Okja, is such a crucial connective thread. "It was actually really hard to get Steven in the film," says the producer Choi. "There was a moment there where our collaborators were going, ‘What’s all the fuss about? We have to start shooting on this date and there are other actors that can play the part.’ But for Director Bong and myself, it was almost like we couldn’t imagine making the film if we couldn’t work out Steven’s schedule."

It wasn’t just Yeun’s ability to converse in Korean and English that made him a perfect fit. "Director Bong loves to tell this story about why he cast me," says Yeun. "He’ll say, ‘Steven has this ability, he looks like a liar — but a liar that you forgive for his lies. That’s what Steven’s face says to me.’" Adds Choi, "You can’t hate the guy. He’s very charming and cute, if you will, and that’s a quality that’s very rare."

In broad strokes, Yeun could relate to the plight of his character, K, and the weight of the hyphen separating his Korean American identity. "You feel like you’re like a man with no country, right? So that to me is K’s journey too," he says. "I feel like a lot of his motivations and even why he seeks out redemption is because he wants to belong to something." This explains K’s subterfuge, but also his later repentance — and the permanent reminder ("Translations are sacred") on his forearm. "It’s like the dumbest fucking tattoo," says Yeun, "but it’s also, like, everything."

The duality of the character resonates. "Many Korean Americans feel a sense of displacement as they don’t quite fit in with either of their cultures," says Christina Oh, of Okja coproducer Plan B Entertainment. In conception and execution, K is a resoundingly faithful depiction of a real Korean American person — a rare cross-cultural cinematic milestone in a film with no shortage of them.

That list shouldn’t overlook a much smaller turn by Choi Woo-shik — who grew up in both Vancouver and Korea — as a Mirando Corporation Korean truck driver. In just a few minutes of screen time (don’t close your Netflix window until after the end credits), he manages to leave a lasting impression. "He’s this young kid who’s probably really highly educated and therefore he speaks English," says producer Choi (no relation), "and yet he can only get a job doing part-time truck driving for a company." In Bong’s world, the specificity written into even the smallest of characters is the glue that holds everything together.

Even with my quibbles about its biggest stars, Okja is the most memorable film I’ve seen in a long while. The Koreans, led by the unforgettable Ahn as Mija, are the most developed, intricate, and layered characters; the Westerners, for a change, are the exaggerated stereotypes. In the middle, most authentic of all, are a couple of hyphenated Koreans trying to make sense of everything. After I watched the film, it left me wanting to see more of Yeun, and more of the truck driver Choi — for that matter, I still wanted more of Ahn. May the next great Korean English film star all three of them.