'Okja' Proves That We're Doomed if We Don't Understand One Another

Bong Joon-ho's Netflix spectacle depicts the difficulty and sacredness of translation.

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Jun 29 2017, 10:31pm

Spoilers for Okja follow.

Translation is front and center of Bong Joon-ho's latest film, Okja. It comes up often as the characters travel between continents, specifically South Korea and the United States, and it's portrayed as inherently difficult. Even if the general meaning is preserved, specific idioms and grammatical structures get lost in translation.

The film's climax rests on a deliberate mistranslation. Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) has been reunited with her beloved super pig Okja thanks to the ALF, led by Jay (Paul Dano). K (Steven Yeun) serves as translator between them. Although they've rescued Okja from the clutches of the Mirando Corporation, the next part of the ALF's plan involves returning Okja to them in order to take the corporation down from the inside. When Jay tells Mija that they won't proceed with the mission if she doesn't agree to it, her answer is simple: She wants no part of it and wants to take Okja back to the mountains. But K is too caught up in the plan, so he lies to his compatriots and tells them the mission is on.

What makes this interesting beyond its implications in the plot is that it's immediately followed by a mistranslation on the part of the movie rather than the characters. The ALF members depart one by one, and K is the last to leave. Right before leaving the truck he turns to Mija and, according to the subtitles, says "How was my Korean?" and "Try learning English. It opens new doors!" But the Korean dialogue that actually comes out of his mouth is, "My name is Gu Soon-bom."

It's a mistranslation that most will miss. Narratively, the subtitles make sense. It's established from K's introduction that although he speaks Korean relatively well, he's still not entirely comfortable with the language; in the latter case, it could come off as a sort of apology for his mistranslation. But for anyone who catches the discrepancy, it casts the entire movie in a different light.

Via Netflix

The difference between language and communication is a theme that runs throughout the film. Mija's at a disadvantage in her first interaction with the ALF, because she has to rely on K to speak for her. Over the course of the movie, however, she teaches herself English, and is able to ford her last interaction with the head of the Mirando Corporation (played by Tilda Swinton) on her own. It's a matter of language that she transcends with Okja. At key points, Mija and Okja are seen whispering in each other's ears, and there's no question as to the fact that they understand each other despite being different species altogether. What's said is kept between them, akin to (aptly enough) the infamous last scene of Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation.

But K's lie is the most obvious example of the importance that language and communication hold in Okja. When he confesses to what he's done, Jay kicks him out of the ALF, telling him that "translation is sacred." When K reappears later on in the film, he's tattooed "translations are sacred" on his arm in penance. The grammatical difference between the two phrases is fairly small but speaks volumes. The former refers to the act; the latter, the end result. Both speak to their respective actions when it comes to dealing with Mija.

Via Netflix

That kind of dual nature is especially fitting for a movie that's a hybrid production. Okja is a Korean-American film, and pushes Bong Joon Ho's talent for spanning moods and genre conventions to its limit. The movie features his trademark sharp shifts in tone, but also melds Western imagery (a scene in the Mirando boardroom apes the image of the White House war room during the bin Laden raid), music (John Denver's "Annie's Song" features prominently), and cultural touchstones (the code names used by the ALF are reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs, especially with the sharing of true names between Mija and K and the matter of misplaced trust) with specifically Korean details. There's a brief mention of the popular texting app Kakaotalk (unfortunately dropped from the subtitle), the hanbok that Mija wears as a part of serving as promotion for Mirando, and the persimmons that Okja is so fond of, which feature prominently in Korean folk tales.

Translation is indeed sacred, as are translations, and there are details in Okja—contextual and metatextual—that are bound to be lost in it. (I wonder if there's an English subtitle somewhere that's been mistranslated for the Korean audience.) These details don't significantly change the narrative; rather, they're like idioms that get lost traveling between languages, or the difference between language and communication. The overall meaning conveyed is roughly the same. The personal connection is what changes.

Follow Karen Han on Twitter.

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