Bong Joon-ho / Ahn Seo-hyun , Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano / Adventure / 2017 / 15 / 120mins
When Netflix came calling, cinematic heavyweight Bong Joon-ho envisioned a pro-vegetarian movie about a super-pig. If that’s not contemporary, I don’t know what is.
With the global food crisis looming, a new species of (not bioengineered *honest*) pig has been discovered that will change the face of the meat industry forever. Okja is one of those pigs, raised lovingly by Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) in rural South Korea. When it’s discovered that Okja is the biggest, juiciest pig in the land she’s taken to New York, leading Mija and members of the Animal Liberation Front, including leader Jay (Paul Dano), to plan Okja’s escape from the clutches of Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton).
Okja is the definition of ‘hit and miss’. The story, in concept alone, was near-flawless – borderline magical realism critiquing modern society? Hell yes – but how it was edited and presented was abysmal. The ending in particular ruins an otherwise great underlying message. *SPOILER* not even a super pig Holocaust can change the world. Keep calm and carry on.
There’s more: the scene Okja proves her love for Mija on the cliff face by sacrificing herself is totally off kilt. Not only is the decision to use that short cut laughingly predictable, but love can be proven through more commonplace means than a personified ‘I got u bro’ ditty. Additional side-rant: scrap the introduction – dialogue could have built up the film universe just as well.
Seo-hyun could not be better in depicting her bond with Okja – she, if anything, brings the creature to life alone. Gyllenhaal meanwhile is a comic savant. His ‘token animal presenter’ captures minor celebrity in all its satirical glory. It is one of the better performances amongst a sea of cliched exaggeration. Swinton’s faux Ivanka Trump diva is nondescript, and evil twin Nancy is fleeting – she’s as flat as a disappointing Coke. A good portion of the supporting cast was vastly underwhelming. Dano and the ALF crew were the worst culprits.
Thankfully the special effects showpiece, the eponymous Okja herself, was mind-blowing. It is so satisfying to see a blurring of CGI and reality. The small interactions between character and beast, even a simple stroke, pass as real. This is a creature you can root for. Joon-ho intersperses serene on-location landscape shots with hurried, dark close ups in the city. The clear favouring of the light countryside is tied to Okja – in shots, in lighting, in palette, in location, Okja is the hero.
I was late to the Bong Joon-ho bandwagon: Snowpiercer, his first English language piece, being my first (and what an introduction). The premise for Okja seemed set to continue his kickass trend. But something was wrong: I wanted to like Okja; only when I realised that did I finally know that Bong Joon-ho had slightly missed the mark (sob).
A promising start soon becomes diluted by over-the-top acting and a failure to give the story deeper meaning. There’s a rollercoaster of spectacular high and demeaning lows in Okja. Though one thing’s for sure: meat won’t be on the menu for some time after watching this feature. Vegetarians have the blockbuster they deserve.
Film as a Film – 3 / Target Audience – 4 / General Audience – 2
Okja is available on Netflix
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