Translating E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial From English To Korean – And Back
“I’m not a boy.”Ted Ottaviano
The super-pig is anatomically-correct.
She has an udder. An ordinary pig has a splashier udder, sometimes referred to as a mammary line; an udder with sixteen teats as opposed to just the one. She has an udder like no other, closer to a goat.
But this is no ordinary pig. It’s a Super-Pig: an okja, which means… “super-pig” in Korean.
Since Mija (Anne Seo-Hyun), our heroine, an unflappable mountain girl, loves Okja so much, why would she give her pet such an unimaginative name? She didn’t.
More than likely, Grandfather (Byun Hee-Bong) named the genetically-modified organism; this unnatural mammal coveted for its gigantism, as he was predisposed to the harsh reality: that the Okja’s stay in this animal utopia, its wild home, would be a finite one.
But the generic name proved to be a flimsy barrier between Mija and her capacity for love towards this divine swine. Director Bong Joon-ho (whose next film Parasite would go on to win Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars), arguably, made a nimble-minded knockoff of the 1982 Steven Spielberg masterpiece, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, originally titled A Boy’s Life.
Which is no mean feat given the number of countless imitators, ranging from harmless:
… Short Circuit
… to godawful:
the meme-ready Mac And Me
Okja isolates the kind and comforting words of a government agent, “Keys”(Peter Coyote).
He tells Elliott (Henry Thomas): “I’m glad he met you first,” before the dead creature auto-resurrects itself, and explores one of the potential scenarios that the enigmatic fed agent had in mind. As a result, Bong (and co-writer Jon Ronson) settle the debate that film theorists have about the extra-terrestrial’s gender through the use of both homage and transference. Okja is the key to unlocking E.T.’s biological sex.
Like invisible ink, held up to the light, suddenly, it’s there for all the world to see, a visual, hiding in plain sight, like a transmission from the ether. A plot twist in the film’s waning seconds that screenwriter Melissa Mathison had employed to force Elliott into sharing his privileged agency with Gertie (Drew Barrymore), without Spielberg, perhaps, being none the wiser.
It’s 1981. The screenwriter had to play the game.
She knew how this town worked.
Mathison was very aware of the sexual politics in her original screenplay. The Hollywood veteran knew that in order for A Boy’s Life to go into production, the lead had to be male. Like Han Solo (Harrison Ford was Mathison’s one-time husband), she knew how to smuggle. Her begrudging assent to codified norms helps explain why E.T. has a prosaic name, the namesake of its species, just like the super-pig. That’s no accident – on both counts.
Presumed male, the biological sex of this boy’s extra-terrestrial friend gets thrown into question when Gertie, the smart one in the family, reclaims the alien as her own kind. A projection, in the interim while Elliott is away at school, when she dresses up the alien like a little old lady on holiday.
E.T. is, more or less, an androgynous doll; a blank slate.
Clothes, a gender-specific costume (as opposed to being buck-naked), makes the malleable alien a girl. Whereas the reveal of an udder by television personality Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), as he inspects Okja’s anatomy for his multi-national employer, recuses Mija from anthropomorphizing her enhanced pet. Okja has lady parts; she is pork, the “other” white meat.
An international super-pig contest, hosted by the “Magical Animals” star, fronts as a promotion for the Mirando Corporation, whose CEO, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), touts a super-pig-derived line of meats to an unsuspecting public, who believe the hippo-esque boars and sows are farm-raised – when in fact, they hailed from a covert lab and were subjected to the worst living conditions that factory farming has to offer.
With the help of the Animal Liberation Front, led by Ja y(Paul Dano), an impossibly earnest eco-terrorist, assisted by his fellow anarchists in arms, Mija rescues Okja. But – not before the sentient animal encounters the slaughterhouse and a sea of auxiliary holding pens.
In E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, it’s for science, not sustenance; a cadaver, not meat, when Elliott bemoans: “They’re just gonna cut him all up.”
Okja can be construed as a “What if?” movie. What if E.T. tasted like chicken?
The visitors with that funny walk are gatherers.
They’re not unlike the Apollo 11 astronauts, collecting lunar regolith(soil) samples on the moon. They come in peace. They are not here to start a War Of The Worlds. As a child, you’re not cognizant of genre, let alone, deviations from genre norms.
Okja forces viewers to reexamine the beloved Spielberg film through the eyes of an adult.
Keys’ words ring truer, a hyper-awareness that pricks our ears, made sensitive by an accumulated knowledge about how cruel this world can be. A seemingly throwaway shot, the insert of a rabbit, not only adds realism to the California woodlands, but it underscores the potential consequences had E.T. made contact with the wrong person. People are hunters. People are carnivores. Nancy Mirando (Swindon again), Lucy’s twin sister, could care less if the world discovers that her super-pigs are products from a garden-variety corporate business model.
“If it’s cheap enough, they’ll eat it,” the former CEO accurately predicts.
Turning to film as an example, there are the mystery sausages in Kevin Connor’s Motel Hell (1980), starring Rory Calhoun as Vincent Smith, a farmer, a meat entrepreneur, and most importantly, a capitalist, which is why the motel manager wears a hollowed-out pig’s head while wielding a chainsaw at his brother, the town sheriff and primary ingredient.
That’s who E.T. could have met at the outset, a hunter and all of his deerstalker friends checking on rabbit traps; armed and enterprising hunters who would act on the potentiality of the extra-terrestrial being edible, or worse, extra-tasty, the catalyst to practicing forced animal husbandry for profit.
With Okja, Bong imagines such a scenario, one of many that Keys implies to a naive child and young audience. Back in 1982, the premise of a friendly alien was new. Relatively untested waters – because interplanetary conflict was, and still is, easier to dramatize than harmony, and better for the box office.
In Robert Wise’s The Day The Earth Stood Still, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), an alien emissary for universal peace, gets shot by a skeptical army soldier with an itchy trigger finger. If any film could cure cancer, it’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.
“Is he a boy or a girl?” Gertie asks. Elliott, albeit a child, shows no outward signs of being a critical thinker. Without any empirical proof, he answers “boy” in the affirmative, and the matter is settled.
But Gertie challenges her older brother with a follow-up question: “Was he wearing any clothes?”
The late Melissa Mathison made Gertie the smart one. She only “sounds” like Cindy Brady.
Gertie teaches E.T. to talk; she’s the first one to grasp “home phone” as being jumbled syntax. Elliott, in stark contrast, is simply a conduit for the extra-terrestrial’s feelings. Most importantly, without the potted geraniums that Gertie brings into her brother’s room, which turns out to be a visual barometer of E.T.’s vigor. Gertie, in her brother’s shoes, would have understood E.T.’s coded meaning behind “stay” as the alien pretends to die on the operating table.
As Elliott exits, he sees the blooming flowers, signifying E.T.’s regeneration. And for all of Gertie’s significant contributions to E.T.’s safe passage to the launch site, the film industry’s bias towards a male being the proactive character, relegates the female to a passive role.
With the utmost discretion, Mathison has something to say about that.
On Halloween night, instead of a cowgirl (a gender fluid archetype denoting heroism), Elliott forces Gertie to dress up as a ghost, the white sheet rendering her impotent. Okja rectifies the hegemony of mainstream filmmaking by reimagining E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial with a female hero. It’s Gertie, after all, who asks: “Is he a pig?” which could be the genesis of Bong translating the Spielberg film from English to Korean.
Gertie’s counterpart, Mija, gets to play an integral part in saving Okja from being cut up into blade, shoulder, loin, spare rib, and hock. In retrospect, E.T. would have been in equally good hands if it was Gertie who ventured into the cornfield with a flashlight.
“Keys” is not the government agent’s name. He never divulges it. A ring of keys is how the audience identifies the government agent.
Initially, the camera cuts him off at the waist. Spielberg, working from Mathison’s shooting script, on the level of narrative, wants to conceal the identity of the film’s antagonist.
But when the survival of Elliott’s green friend is in peril, Keys vacates his role of arch-enemy. He shares with the boy his own close encounter dreams as a likeminded ten-year-old boy.
So, who is the real bad guy? It’s not a person. On the level of film theory, it’s an ideological symbol with historicity on its side; the phallus. The government agent’s keys is meant to divert the audience’s attention from his crotch, but the phallus, indeed, is the focal point. Although Mathison played by the rules, it didn’t stop her from subverting yesteryears’ strictures on mainstream filmmaking with some next-level coded feminism.
Take the hug, a hug for the ages between Elliott and E.T. at the film’s climax. Notice that it duplicates the prior embrace between Elliott and Mary (Dee Wallace), his mother, when the alien’s life hangs in the balance. In both instances, Elliott’s back is facing the camera. The extra-terrestrial can be read as a father surrogate.
The children’s father, however, is practically a cipher at the time of E.T.’s arrival and full-immersion into the particulars of suburban living. E.T., arguably, displaces the mother, not just Harvey, the family dog. E.T. is both father “and” mother, or maybe, just the latter, since the kids had acclimated themselves to the new normal of being cared for by a singer parental entity.
E.T. as mom? Where’s the proof?
E.T. purrs, suggesting a cat, an animal that historically reads as feminine; a queen to Elliott’s prince, the would-be king, who insists to Michael that he has “absolute power” (read: Mathison’s critique of Hollywood’s power structure) over the alien/woman/the “other”.
Quite pointedly, on All Saints’ Eve, the children are with E.T., not their mother, donned in a cat costume, which aligns her with Harvey, the other supplanted figure, a golden retriever.
“I don’t like his feet.”Gertie
From the future, Nancy Mirando, in an intertextual sense, hears Gertie, and replies: “The Mexicans love the feet.”
Mexico is where the runaway father fled to with Sally, his mistress. It was Gertie who fills the awkward silence with a geographical question after Elliott intentionally hurts his mother about the specifics of her husband’s transgression. It’s a call and response that spans thirty-five years. In Okja, the arch-villain doesn’t have a phallus, neither does the hero nor the super-pig.
Bong Joon-ho opens our eyes to a new interpretation of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial Bong translates secret messages from beyond the grave. In particular, the waning seconds of the film’s running time.
The sky is neuter.
And then it’s not.
The spaceship leaves behind a mark in the sky; a cut, a cleaving formed from a spare rib found in the Edenic mountains of Seoul.
Okja is the film Melissa Mathison wishes she had the option of writing:
A story about A Girl’s Life.
Have you seen E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial lately? Has it stood the test of time?
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