Okja (2017)

Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writers: Bong Joon-ho & Jon Ronson
Cast: Ahn Seo-hyun, Byun Hee-bong, Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Shirley Henderson, Giancarlo Esposito.

Bong Joon-ho keeps proving that as a director it is basically impossible to pigeonhole him. Working with a script he co-wrote with author Jon Ronson (whose book I teach in one of my college courses), the director has crafted a film that tries to do a lot, not always successfully, but ultimately resulting in something original and interesting, if not always pitch perfect.

After the tenures of her controversial grandfather, father, and twin sister, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton, A Bigger Splash) takes over the family company, the Mirando Corporation, in need of some serious damage control. To combat the bad publicity and press, Lucy announces the recent discovery of a new breed of super-pig that is environmentally friendly and also, as she puts it, it fucking tastes good. The project will take ten years to allow the super-pigs to grow, with the 26 piglets being raised by farmers all over the world, in an experiment to see which environment proves most nurturing and fruitful. The project will be overseen by television personality and zoologist Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler).

Cut to ten years later and we are in the mountains of South Korea, where an elderly farmer (Byun Hee-bong, The Host) and his orphaned granddaughter Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) care for their super-pig Okja. Mija is unaware that Okja must be returned to the Mirando Corporation, as her grandfather had led her to believe that they had purchased the animal and it was now theirs. When she discovers Okja gone, Mija goes on a quest to get her animal friend back, on a journey that begins in Seoul and will eventually take her to the United States, in New York City. Throwing a wrench in the plans of both the Mirando Corporation and Mija as well are a group of animal activists, led by Jay (Paul Dano, Youth).

The themes of this film are a bit all over the place. Is it a film about environmentalism? Is it about animal rights and our current food industries? Is it about how and why we eat meat? Is it about the callous nature of corporations? Is it about the evils of American companies and practices? Is it about friendship and what constitutes family? Is it a critique of bleeding-heart activists and the lengths they will go to in order to justify their cause? Is it about ideologies and how everyone believes to be in the right? You get my point. This movie is doing so much, maybe too much. The end result is something visionary and interesting, but also not fully developed. It feels like a pilot episode of a new television show with an ending smacked at the tail because it got canceled before it ever aired. There is too much ambition and just not enough time. And yet it is highly watchable, and visually arresting. Just not very cohesive.

The young actress playing Mija does a good job at grounding the film. Her attention, and thus ours, is firmly planted on reconnecting with her beloved pet, never wavering from her goal. Thus any horror the animal experiences (a certain sequence will test audiences and what they can stomach, as a friend of mine who also saw the movie had an especially hard time with it) will only make viewers root for Mija to fulfill her desire to return to Korea with Okja in tow. Dano, Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead), and Lily Collins (The Blind Side) are fine as the animal activists, but their characters are never really given any room to breathe. Their mission is more important than character development.

okja 2.jpg
Tilda Swinton as Lucy Mirando

Pulling double duty as twins Lucy and Nancy (something she’s done once before in Hail, Caesar!), Swinton gets to be over the top and gets to revel in the zaniness of her characters. Swinton is one of, if not the, my favorite actresses, but she sometimes can run into Johnny Depp levels of scary dangerous territory. When controlled, the characters she creates are some of the best out there, but if given too much leeway she can turn something into a caricature that has lost all connection to reality. She steps back and forth over the line in this film, resulting in uneven and never fully fleshed out personalities. On the other hand, Gyllenhaal goes full crazy. He doesn’t only chew scenery, he literally leaves nothing un-masticated. He plays Johnny Wilcox as a character who has lost all connection to reality, an unstable, unlikable, and effectively mad scientist with a cackle of a laugh and an energy that if it were defined as nervous it would be the understatement of the century. I don’t know what notes he was given concerning his performance, but apparently more is more was the final result.

I still don’t know for sure how I feel about Okja. The animal, much like the creature in the same director’s 2006 movie The Host, is not fully believable as real, but its personality and Mija’s believable love for it, render it more alive and ground it in something realistic and tangible. The film has heart, but it has too much other stuff too, so that the message, whatever it may be, is lost in a hotdog of other guts and parts, just like the meat products the super-pig are destined for. Am I happy I watched the movie? Sure. It was more interesting and thought-provoking than a lot of stuff out there. Did I get it? Maybe. Some parts of it. Perhaps. Ultimately, I don’t know, but I still kept watching and was interested throughout, and that, at least, is saying something.

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