Okja **** / *****
Directed by: Bong Joon Ho.
Written by: Bong Joon Ho and Jon Ronson.
Starring: Ahn Seo-hyun (Mija), Tilda Swinton (Lucy Mirando), Paul Dano (Jay), Jake Gyllenhaal (Dr. Johnny Wilcox), Byun Hee-bong (Heebong), Steven Yeun (K), Lily Collins (Red), Yoon Je-moon (Mundo Park), Shirley Henderson (Jennifer), Daniel Henshall (Blond), Devon Bostick (Silver), Choi Woo-shik (Kim), Giancarlo Esposito (Frank Dawson).
Bong Joon Ho’s Okja is not a perfect film by any means – yet, in its way, it shows why perfect films can sometimes be rather dull. The Korean auteur behind such great films as Memories of Murder (he least seen film, which is a shame, because it’s his best), The Host, Mother and Snowpiercer – has crafted something truly original and strange with Okja – a film that seemingly throws everything at the wall to see what will stick. Not everything does, of course, but I’d rather a film go for broke, and not quite stick the landing, than play it safe. Okja is by no means perfect, but it’s sure as hell memorable.
I’ve been struggling in coming up with a way to describe the film. It is a corporate satire, but also a dark children’s fantasy film. It’s got a clear political message against the factory farming of meat – and perhaps against eating meat at all, but it does find room to poke fun at people on all sides. It is a film that children would both relate to, and find utterly, completely horrifying. It feels like a large budgeted film for some bygone era in which they were allowed to contain ideas along spectacle. And man, is it ever strange.
Basically, the film revolves around a little girl in Korean named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), who lives in basically in the wilderness with her grandfather, a farmer. He was given the title character – Okja – a genetically modified “super pig” who will be part of a 10 year experiment, in which 10 of these pigs are distributed to farms around the world, to determine the best way to raise them in order to maximize their meat production. Mija and Okja are best friends – and do everything together, and trust each other – but when the 10 years expire, he’ll be given back to the company that created him. That is, unless Mija – with the help of an animal rights group – ALF – can save him.
Okja, the creature, is a triumph of special effects – he looks like a giant, black pig crossed with a hamster, but he truly does have one of the most expressive faces of a CGI creation I have seen. This is crucial, because Okja is essentially about the bond between him and Mija – how much he loves and trusts her, and the expressiveness in the first act helps solidify that bond – and the sheer pain and horror on his face in the latter half, are truly horrifying. Little Ahn Seo-hyun does a great job for a child actress as well, displaying the kind of single minded devotion to principle and her friend that you really only find in children – before the world crushes it out of them. The love between these two characters is really the subject of the film.
The adult performers are more a mixed bag. I’m not quite sure what the hell Jake Gyllenhaal is doing in his performance – he plays a child friendly celebrity spokesperson for the company that created the super pig, and the performance is purposefully broad, but I cannot help but think it’s too broad to be at all believable. You have to kind of admire his devotion to it though, don’t you? I did like Tilda Swinton, once again playing twins – the evil sister who is now the head of the company, and the even more evil sister who used to be head of the company, and wants back in. I feel like Paul Dano could have been better as the leader of ALF, had the screenplay given him slightly more to do – the film pokes gentle fun at his obsessiveness, but I fear Bong liked him too much to push that element into the extremism that I felt the movie wanted to go in. In fact, much of the ALF stuff kept feeling like it was going to go further, and never quite got there.
Still, Okja is a film packed with ideas, and unlike Bong’s last film Snowpiercer – I didn’t feel a letdown by the ending. The ending here is a happy one – I guess – but not too happy to sell out what has come before it. Nothing really has changed on the larger scale of the movie – but it has on the smaller one, which here makes a difference. The film was funded by Netflix, who has done a great job with getting their TV shows in the spotlight, but a terrible one doing the same for their movies. Okja hopefully changes that – and also, hopefully, serves as their model going forward – give a great director money and freedom to do whatever the hell they want.