Film Review – Okja
Okja (2017) is a peculiar film. Bong Joon-ho, writer/director of works such as Snowpiercer (2013), Mother (2009), and The Host (2006), once again brings his unique creativity to this project, but there seems to be something missing this time around. His story is sweet, lovely, frightening, frustrating, and strange all in equal measure. It’s told by a filmmaker with a vision that appears to be trying to find itself as it unfolds. While some may take this description as a benefit, I came away impervious to the entire experience.
It may be due to the fact that the narrative is told fairly straightforward. We’re introduced to a CEO of a multinational corporation named Lucy (Tilda Swinton) who claims that they have discovered a brand new animal called a “super pig”. These super pigs look like a cross between a pig and a hippopotamus, but with the personality of a puppy. According to Lucy, the animals can help solve the increasing food shortage happening around the world, while at the same time being eco friendly. The corporation sets up a competition: twenty-six super pigs are sent out to different countries to be nurtured and grown. After ten years, the super pig that is best maintained will be brought back to America and celebrated as a symbol of humanity’s new saving grace.
There’s one thing Lucy and her corporation failed to anticipate: the possibility of the caretakers developing a bond with the super pigs. In South Korea, Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) is a young girl that has helped raise her super pig (named Okja) with her grandfather high in the mountains. Mija has developed a strong connection with Okja – in such an isolated environment they have become each other’s best friend. When the ten years is up and the corporation comes to collect Okja, Mija takes it upon herself to run away from home, rescue Okja, and bring her back. Although Mija is young, she’s fully aware that Okja will most likely end up in a slaughterhouse.
The most frustrating thing about Okja is how it teases at some deeper level of insight, but in the end the themes remain at surface level. Bong Joon-ho tosses a number of different topics into the pot, from the corruption of big business to animal cruelty, but any further discussion go missing. The opening scene, in which Lucy explains how the super pigs can help sustain life for humanity, points at a larger examination of animal treatment in order to confront world hunger. But that potential is wiped away, instead going for a preachy message in which all big business are bad and that’s simply the way it is.
Although Mija’s mission is laid out plain and clear, Bong Joon-ho does allow for quirkier material to makes its way in. There is a certain level of outlandishness happening here. One of the funnier sequences involves Mija and Okja running through a crowded mall while authorities are in full pursuit. Bong Joon-ho takes the action and ramps it into slow motion while laying John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” on top of it. The combination of the two elements makes for an absurdly hilarious chase scene. Many of the characters are also quite colorful. Along her journey, Mija runs into members of the peaceful radical group named ALF (Animal Liberation Front). Led by Paul Dano’s Jay, ALF is an extreme animal right’s group who want to help Mija save Okja. ALF is so intense in their policies that one of their members (Devon Bostick) refuses to eat tomatoes in fear of leaving too large an environmental footprint.
As eccentric as some of the scenes and characters are, much of what goes on in Okja falls a bit flat. Many of the characters are just shells, dabs of personalities that never fully develop. Mija remains steadfast in her desire to reunite with Okja, but that’s all we get from her. She pouts and grimaces and runs a lot. Perhaps it’s due to her youth, but Mija operates mostly as a passive protagonist. Tilda Swinton (who was one of the main highlights of Snowpiercer) plays Lucy with odd ticks and anxieties, but they don’t add up to much. We learn that Lucy has a bitter hatred for her sister, but even that dynamic sputters as we move in the latter stages. And in what is – hands down – the strangest performance of his career, Jake Gyllenhaal bursts through the doors as Dr. Johnny Wilcox, a TV personality known for his expertise in super pigs. With a high, cracking voice and exaggerated mannerisms, Gyllenhaal looks like some kind of mad scientist who has been experimenting on himself. His performance is so over the top that it cannot be taken seriously, even when Gyllenhaal tries to inject some humanity into the character. We get a sense that Dr. Wilcox started out with earnest intentions and then sold out for fame and fortune, but again, it’s a possibility that isn’t fully realized.
Although impeccably made on an aesthetic level, Okja left a lot to be desired. In a picture that has scenes of absurd humor, surreal beauty, and even dark cruelty, the whole piece ended up feeling surprisingly safe. Somewhere in here lies a great film wanting to come out.