2017 | rated R | starring Seo-Hyun Ahn, Tilda Swindon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano | directed by Joon-Ho Bong | 2 hrs |
Joon-Ho Bong has fast become one of the most interesting filmmakers in the world today. He’s one of a handful that his entire little filmography is worth watching and you’ll see one hidden gem after another. After his first English-Language film (the masterful class allegory/action movie Snowpiercer) was dumped and mistreated by The Weinstein Company (dropped against the latest Transformers film with no promotion) it was Netflix that came in and gave Ho cart blanche to do whatever he wanted for his next film. Okja is absolutely wild in a rare and wonderful way.
In a returning collaboration with Tilda Swindon as our corporate antagonist here, the film opens with a press conference setting the sci-fi stage. The large multi-national GMO Mirando Corporation has succeeded in genetically creating a race of giant mutant pigs. Because people are skittish about eating genetically engineered food, several of those pigs are sent around the world to live in peace with adopted owners for 10 years until they fully develop and can be entered in a World’s Best Superpig contest, then slaughtered. The story picks up with Mija (Seo-Hyn Ahn) living in a remote farmhouse in South Korea with her Superpig Okja – a CGI creation mixed seamlessly into the action and given a personality. When the Mirando Corporation comes to take her pig to the contest in New York, Mija and Okja become the center of a battle between the GMOs and Environmentalists.
Okja comes at us from a lot of angles. I suspect a lot of people are going to say that it’s tone is all over the place or that it’s trying to be too many things at once… but, it isn’t. The tone is fine. It’s consistently wacky, cartoonish and over the top in a way few mainstream studio films are these days because it is the work of a filmmaker with a unique voice and something to say. The tone is set with satirical Mirando presentations (think the train schoolhouse lesson in Snowpiercer) and the scenery chewing appearance of Jake Gyllenhaal in a barely recognizable, insane, performance as a Steve Irwin-type TV animal whisperer and Mirando corporate shill with vastly different personalities on and off camera.
The movie is going to seem erratic if someone a) traces it through a typical demographically designed path that clearly spells out who the movie is for and b) wants your movies to deliver an obvious political message and reinforce their own opinion. Ho’s film does neither and eschews those expectations in a way that recalls the Speilberg produced Amblin Entertainment films of the 80s – family films where it seemed that the kids were being put in real danger. It’s a refreshing reminder by contrast of how marketed Hollywood films are nowadays, slickly shaving off any rough edges to appeal to specific singular audiences. Okja is a story built on a child’s relationship with a dog-like superpig that drops enough F-words to earn an R rating and doesn’t dull it’s satire of animal torture. Speilberg-ian strains ran through Ho’s monster hit monster movie The Host where an average family of quirky characters faced down a vicious beast, but here Ho’s influences explode on the screen in a way that lights up the film instead of feeling derivative of them.
From a message-standpoint, the movie that Okja most reminded me of, oddly, is Alexander Payne’s early abortion satire Citizen Ruth. Ho approaches the animal right’s issue with the same attitude, staking out a position in the middle and showing both sides as inflated stereotypes of themselves only interested in Mija and Okja’s plight to further their own interest. For Mirando it’s an internal insecurity of her leadership abilities and a battle with her sister’s vision of the company. For the Animal Liberation Front activists, it’s about showing the world they love animals. The AFL angle in the film is hilarious. Lead by Paul Dano the fanatical group wants to use Okja to bring down Mirando while their members starve, tattoo and beat each other up for the cause. This is the part of the film that would have been shaved off in a studio version of Okja, muting Ho’s impish delight in putting a skewer in the belly of all sides.
At core and above all, Okja is an adventure that stomps through the jungles of South Korean, through streets and markets and through New York City. It looks terrific, the effects are great, the characters are well developed, even when they are quirky on top of quirky. It’s the kind of movie you get when an independent studio lets an auteur with a self-assured vision do their thing and trusts the audience will pick it up. It is slick, funny, purely cinematic and unpredictable. Everything that makes Okja feel thorny and not for everyone is exactly why it’s so irresistibly entertaining. A high water mark for Netflix Originals and one of the must-see films of the year.