Bong’s grasp of tone is sometimes suspect, but this is still a fairly entertaining piece with strong ecological and anti-animal abuse themes.
Dir. Bong Joon-ho
2017 | South Korea/USA | Action/Adventure/Drama | 120 mins | 2.39:1 | English & Korean
NC16 (passed clean) for some coarse language and disturbing scenes
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Ahn Seo-hyun, Jake Gyllenhaal, Steven Yeun
Plot: A young girl risks everything to prevent a powerful, multinational company from kidnapping her best friend – a fascinating beast named Okja.
Awards: Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed on Netflix)
Competing for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, where it also had to contend with wave after wave of anti-Netflix attacks, Okja is certainly not bereft of any publicity.
Despite the heightened profile, Okja is not one of Bong Joon-ho’s finest hours. It is still a decent, serviceable ‘family-type’ movie, though I suspect it contains enough coarse language to warrant a R-rating if it had been theatrically released in the States.
As such, it is made to be a blockbuster-type movie that is fairly entertaining, and with big stars like Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano and Jake Gyllenhaal leading the way. However, there is something slightly off about the film’s tone, which can be inconsistent, and due largely in part to performances that are too deliberately eye-catching.
Gyllenhaal is probably the most culpable with a ham-fisted display of exaggerated character eccentricity, that aside from showering us with a laugh or two in the early stages, becomes a caricature. He plays a famous celebrity with a popular animal show, but we see his id manifesting behind closed doors.
“The Mexicans love the feet. I know. Go figure! We all love the face and the anus, as American as apple pie! Hot dogs. It’s all edible. All edible, except the squeal.”
Swinton is slightly problematic as well, but hers is still a controlled performance playing the head of a multinational company, but she is in the weakest scene halfway through Okja, as a board meeting plays out about future strategies to tackle a potentially career-busting crisis.
Bong’s other film, The Host (2006), which Okja will be most compared to (by virtue of being high-concept ‘creature’ movies), also suffers a similar middling syndrome.
Pacing and tonal issues aside, Okja is not without its strong themes—that of ecology and anti-animal abuse. It is also a rebuke of the meat-processing industry where the killing of animals, in this case, the super-pigs, is legitimised by capitalism.
When the movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, the audience began to boo when the Netflix’s title card was shown in the opening credits.
It raises questions surely, but it is near-impossible to stop everyone from eating meat, except to make a collective effort to raise a new generation of kids on a vegetarian diet—that is in itself an insurmountable task.
But Okja’s tale (named after a special super-pig raised by a Korean girl, Mija, as played by a superb Ahn Seo-hyun) is also one about connection and kinship.
As Okja’s whereabouts and condition are the source of utmost concern from Mija, and also the Animal Liberation Front, a non-violent ‘terrorist’ group hoping to save animals from the hands of corporate greed and ignorance, Bong’s film takes pains to put us on the emotional side of morality, leaving us with a rather powerful climax.