Fantasy Reality: Catherine George on Costuming Okja

MINOR SPOILERS

Okja (2017) is the second film that costume designer Catherine George has worked on with director Bong Joon-ho. Their first together, Snowpiercer (2013), despite being lauded by critics (and featuring Chris Evans), only received a limited theatrcial run in the U.S. and no release at all in the UK. Unlike Okja, Snowpiercer is an out and out sci-fi fantasy set when most of the world’s population have been wiped out and those who remain live on perpetually moving train. Okja is still a fantasy, it revolves around a little girl Mija (An Seo Hyun) trying to save her giant ‘super pig’ from being harvested as GM bacon, but is set within our recognisable reality. There are smart phones, cars we know, Instagram and Facebook. However the film has a deliberate otherworldly feel about it. Not quite in the future and not as locked as a parallel universe, but skewed through the unmistakable eye of its director. It’s familiar yet new.

Catherine George approached this concept of fantasy reality by looking at the present day world around her. She explains, “I think that having a lot of research of real people is key to making confident choices. I try to create a backstory for each character and find images that support it. Then I discuss this with the actor and director”. Of course this does not just apply to the central cast – secondary characters require just as much groundwork. George continues, “When researching the characters of Blond (Daniel Henshall) and Silver (Devon Bostick) I came up with a backstory that Silver is maybe a bike messenger in our real life world because he in the movie refuses to eat as he tries to have the smallest carbon footprint. Devon lost a lot of weight for the part so the bike messenger angle worked well for it. Funny, I was on the subway in New York after the movie finished shooting and saw these two guys who were just like how I had dressed Blond”.

Image of a man travelling on the New York subway taken by Catherine George.

George’s costume for Blond (Daniel Henshall) echoes this urban subway look on screen. Note too his change 3 costume, the Mirando tech t-shirt.

For Okja, George worked alongside South Korea based costume designer Se-yeon Choi (who had previously costumed Joon ho-Bong’s Mother in 2009). Obviously this is not a typical situation. “Director Bong had discussed with me sometime before we started that he wanted to have a Korean costume designer and production designer for the South Korean scenes to give it an authenticity, which I think really works for the contrast of the two parts of the story” George expands. “I met Se-yeon over a Skype call and we were emailing and messaging back and forth as we were in opposite time zones during prep. Then we got to meet in person and work together on the scenes where Dr. Johnny Wilcox arrives in the South Korean countryside and when the Animal Liberation Front kidnap Okja in Seoul”.

Arguably the most theatrical performance in Okja belongs to Jake Gyllenhaal as Dr. Johnny – a kind of Steve Irwin esque wildlife TV presenter dressed in short safari pants and block stripe jackets with knee socks and splayed collar shirts. Wilcox undergoes an emotional arc during the story but because Gyllenhaal’s delivery is so over the top his jocular costume never undermines this emotion. It is exactly what we expect such a man to wear; he is always ‘on’ so it feels true.

Pencil sketch for Lucy’s parade dress (Tilda Swinton) by Catherine George alongside complementing Hanbok style outfit worn by An Seo Hyun as Mija (with ‘Lucy Mirando’ embroidered signature, which was later moved to the sleeve to afford a close up when Mija is injured), as drawn by director Bong Joon-ho.

Similarly Tilda Swinton in duel roles as Lucy Mirando, a somewhat progressive CEO of Mirando, the corporation responsible for growing super-pig Okja in a test-tube and her, frankly, evil bastard twin sister Nancy is costumed with a readable believability. Lucy primarily wears pale pink which subtly aligns her with the colour of a domestic pig. She is certainly not going to help save Okja, but she knows the value of good PR; she wants to project a softer image for Mirando as the company that cares.

Catherine George and Swinton took inspiration from a 2016 Resort collection Chanel dress the actress had spotted on the catwalk for one of her costumes, worn for Okja’s big reveal at a parade in New York. George elaborates, “Myself, Tilda Swinton and director Bong all loved the idea of Lucy wearing the Chanel couture dress. We talked about Lucy trying to make a statement by wearing a traditional Korean dress. We also talked about CEOs of big corporations and while we were looking at Richard Branson we found press photos of him wearing national costumes”.

Catherine George’s board for Lucy’s parade dress with close up shots of Bojagi fabric.

The colour of Lucy’s dress matches not only the hanbok style ensemble worn by Mija (delightfully teamed with trainers) but also the pink pig costumes of those taking part in the parade. “Due to the unusual shooting schedule we were filming some scenes with Mija leaving the slaughterhouse before any of the New York parade scenes so her costume had to be designed and constructed based on Lucy’s stage dress. The pyjama suit silhouette actually came from one of director Bong’s iPad sketches – he storyboards everything”. George used an experienced Handbok makers to construct Mija’s ensemble. “It was really interesting to go to see their studio” she continues. “They are traditionally worn for weddings and special occasions. Incidentally the style of patchwork used for the Chanel dress is ‘Bojagi’, a Korean wrapping fabric. It is very intricate and time consuming to work with”.

When Lucy’s sister Nancy marches into the picture wearing a padded coat synonymous with big country estates and Land Rovers – the intonation here being that Nancy has been living among the Home Counties set in the UK – there is a sudden shock that we are seeing what would happen if someone combined The Queen with prime minister Teresa May. Again costume, as broadly defined as it is here, separates two very distinct characters that are played by the same actress. No chance of mistaking these two. We have relatively little time to spend with Nancy too, so it’s important we get a read on her swiftly.

The distinguishing red jacket worn by Mija contrasting her with the bleak greyness of commuter Seoul.

In terms of costume motifs, Mija grounds this fantasy reality. She has probably seen little of the world outside of rural South Korea, but her attire is still somewhat reflective of Western fashion. Her most readable moment is during the sequence set in Seoul. Mija makes runs through a crowd of grey commuters in a bright red zip-up jacket marking her out as different and, most importantly, passionate. She is a stubborn, wilful person with an unbreakable love for Okja. We see that if one person can make a difference in this consumerist treadmill of a world, it is her. Catherine George explains about Mija’s early look,”The countryside costume was designed by Se-Yeon. The colours are beautiful in the green landscape of her mountain home and gorgeous in the Seoul train station”.

Mija is completely at odds with the mindset of Mirando corp. They try to feminise her with the custom made parade outfit – which in context of the story and in their gendered mindset is to ‘weaken’ her. She retains a semblance of self by wearing the scuffed trainers, but is as lost as she appears. Mija is our link to the story as more than a madcap fantasy. She is real because Se-yeon Choi and Catherine George have dressed her to look real. She, like every character in Okja, even the flamboyance of Wilcox and Lucy, are credible in their own world. No PVC lounge suits or Velcro attached helmets here; the clothes in Okja are as real as they can be.

With thanks to Catherine George.

Okja is currently streaming on Netflix.

© 2017, Lord Christopher Laverty.