Of the many jokes sprinkled throughout director Bong Joon-ho’s newest film, Okja, there’s one in particular that’s designed to capture the spirit of the movie while also flying under the radar for anyone watching it who isn’t fluent in Korean and English.
Okja revolves around a young Korean girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and the movie’s titular superpig, who was genetically engineered by the shady Mirando Corporation in hopes of finding a plentiful, cheap source of meat to capitalise on. When Mirando takes Okja, Mija chases after her. Along the way, she runs across the extremist Animal Liberation Front, who have a plan of their own for Okja.
After the ALF and Mija have successfully reclaimed Okja, team leader Jay (Paul Dano) asks Mija if she’d be willing to let Okja be retaken by Mirando in order to give the ALF eyes inside. Because Mija only speaks Korean and Jay only speaks English, the question is translated by ALF member K (Steven Yeun), who happens to be Korean-American and bilingual. This is Mija’s answer:
But K, knowing no one else will know, lies and tells everyone that she’s down with the ALF’s plan, setting the rest of the movie’s plot into motion. As the ALF abandons the truck that Mija and Okja are on, K says something to Mija that’s subtitled on Netflix in the United States as “Mija! Try learning English. It opens new doors!”
As Vulture pointed out, though, that’s a blatant mistranslation of what K actually says: “Mija! Also, my name is Koo Soon-bum,” a joke that’s a little more complex.
Speaking to Vulture, Yuen explained that Koo Soon-bum hits the ear as a rather old fashioned-sounding name if you speak Korean. It was an intentional choice Bong wrote into Okja‘s script to highlight the character being second generation.
“When he says ‘Koo Soon-bum,’ it’s funny to you if you’re Korean, because that’s a dumb name,” Yuen said. “There’s no way to translate that. That’s like, the comedy drop-off, the chasm between countries.”
Bong’s joke may get lost in translation for many people, but it’s a clever hint at what the future may hold for more successful, internationally-produced films like Okja that are best experienced through a multicultural lens.