Director: Bong Joon Ho
Cast: An Seo Hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Byun Heebong, Giancarlo Esposito, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Woo Shik Choi
Running Time: 1:58
Release Date: 6/28/17 (limited; Netflix)
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 27, 2017
Okja begins as the sweet story of a young girl and her giant, genetically modified pig, and it ends as a condemnation of the greed and coldness of an almost-sociopathic corporate culture. This is a pretty big leap, obviously, and it's one on which co-writer/director Bong Joon Ho can't stick the landing. One admires the temerity in attempting the jump, but then there's the feeling of dismay in watching the wobbly, uneven decline. You know the movie isn't going to make it, but you still hold out a bit of hope that it'll find a way to pull through in the end.
That's mostly because the movie is thoroughly enjoyable through its first act. Bong and his team of visual effects artists have created a lovable digital creature in the eponymous pig, an oversized swine that loves to play, nap, and propel its droppings at an alarming speed. The animal is unthinking enough in its natural behavior for us to see it as a pure innocent in a world that becomes darker and more threatening as the story progresses, but there's also the light of understanding and reasoning in its eyes.
This is especially true early on in the movie, when Mija (An Seo Hyun), the girl who has raised the pig since it was a piglet, ends up hanging off the side of a cliff from a rope. Okja scrambles to grab the other end of the rope with its hooves and then its mouth. Realizing that this course of action isn't enough, it quickly devises another plan involving the physics of pulley. It's a smart pig, and it's also a caring one, given that it has no hesitation in putting itself in danger by serving as the counterweight for this impromptu simple machine.
Mija loves Okja, and we can gather that Okja loves the girl, too. She's an orphan, raised by her grandfather (Byun Heebong), a farmer who lives in small shack on a hill in South Korea. The grandfather was selected by the Mirando Corporation, a food company, to raise one of a couple dozen of the so-called super-pigs for a worldwide competition. The best pig will "win" a trip to New York City, where it will become the pork-based food of the future.
The competition is a decade-long stunt, orchestrated by the company's new CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) to distract the public from the corporation's past (Her father developed napalm, and her twin sister Nancy, also played by Swinton, was equally ruthless in her business practices). The judge is the formerly famous, now drunk and resentful television zoologist Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal, playing a role that should be about an eight at about the 20-mark on the hamming-it-up scale). He declares Okja to be the winner. Mija, realizing what this means for her beloved pig, sets out for Seoul to stop Okja's transport to the States.
This quickly results in a dynamic chase sequence that follows Mija on foot, following the truck bringing Okja to the airport, and ends with the giant pig racing through the streets and a subway terminal of Seoul, pursued by agents from Mirando and an animal-rights organization led by Jay (Paul Dano). Well after a prologue featuring Lucy's media event that's heavy on the corporate-speak, the movie's satirical streak begins in earnest with the introduction of the animal-rights group. They're a bunch of do-gooders with a questionable degree of effectiveness. Everything they say is intoned with politeness, even when they're pointing guns (which turn out to be non-lethal) at people in order to get their way. This is a group that borders on hypocrisy, although Bong and Jon Ronson's screenplay isn't convicted enough in its satirical aims to take the portrayal that far.
After all, the real target is the Mirando Corporation and the mindset it represents. The movie's portrayal of these elements comes across as neutered, too, although in a different way. There are plenty of meetings—in a board room, hallways, and a dressing room—with lengthy bits of dialogue that keep circling around the same point: Corporate people are more concerned with image than anything else. Everything is either good publicity or bad publicity that can be twisted into the good kind. Mija's detention by Mirando security looks awful, so Lucy makes the girl a VIP at the event that will launch the company's new line of super-pig foodstuff.
This is obvious stuff, but it's also redundant. Both of those undermine whatever point about the food industry or corporate culture in general that Bong and Ronson are attempting here. That the movie's tone becomes dark pretty quickly upon arriving in New York doesn't help too much (Okja is subjected to forced breeding, has layers of flesh removed from its body, and winds up in a hellhole of a slaughterhouse for the finale). All of it is driving home the point, but the shift from silly to hopeless also transforms the movie's message-making from innocuous to heavy-handed.
It's easy to forgive some of this, since the movie is clearly a fable and the relationship between the girl and her pig is so firmly established in the first act. Okja is admirable when it is trying to be a pure fable or a sweet story. It crumbles to varying degrees when it tries to do more.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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