South Korean director Bong Joon-ho is a master at blending opposing tones (see 2016’s Snowpiercer if you doubt me). That’s exactly what he does in his newest film, Okja. Half broad, outrageous comedy and half heart-rending, stomach-turning drama, Okja is beautifully executed.
Setting the tone of a movie is a big part of the magic of cinema. So many people contribute to the production – from actors to set decorators, cinematographers to sound mixers – working together to create a living, breathing world that draws us in. The director is at the center of it all, acting as the conductor, bringing order to the chaos that could result from hundreds of people focusing solely on their own jobs. And Bong Joon-ho is an amazing conductor.
Bong and his co-screenwriter, Jon Ronson, started by making the hero of their picture a 13-year-old South Korean girl who speaks no English. Someone who most Hollywood executives would probably consider a financial dead end. Maybe that’s why the director financed his movie through Netflix, where the movie premiered on June 28th, in addition to a very limited theatrical release.
Okja begins in the year 2007, with a stunning announcement from the new CEO of the Mirando Corporation, Lucy Mirando. She has recently taken the company over from her reviled grandfather and unstable, cruel twin sister, Nancy. Lucy’s appearance is soft, girlish, and non-threatening; the perfect way to kick off the company’s new brand. Instead of a hated and heartless multinational conglomerate, Mirando Corporation will be an innovative problem solver! They have discovered and bred a rare kind of giant pig, one that will deliciously solve the world’s impending food shortage problem.
As with all the best corporate marketing campaigns, this one involves a contest. The company has sent 26 of the best superpig specimens to different countries where each will be raised by the world’s best farmers. In ten years, they will be judged, and one superpig will be crowned the winner. Cut to 2017, in the rural splendor of South Korea, where an old farmer allows his superpig, named Okja, to roam free under the supervision of his granddaughter, Mija. Okja is more pet than livestock to Mija, and when the kindly porcine wins the contest and is shipped off to Mirando Corp’s offices in New York City, Mija will do anything to get her back.
In Okja, Bong accomplishes with detailed skill what would be a muddled mess in the hands of a lesser director. The film is a biting social satire, it features outlandish action-adventure with heavy doses of the blackest humor, and it ends with a deeply moving and emotional climax.
Bong puts the vicious satire right at the front with Lucy Mirando’s press conference. His hyperactive camera movements and the meticulous choreography of Lucy’s walk from a platform in one of her company’s factories down a staircase to the make-shift dais in front of the media recalls a lavish awards show production. In the world of Okja, which is barely indistinguishable from our own, it doesn’t matter how the sausage gets made, literally. What matters are a company’s social media presence, P.R. acumen, and spectacular contests. The gullibility of the public will do the rest. That’s why a line late in the film about the public finding out how cruelly the superpigs are treated rings so horribly true. Nancy Mirando declares that none of that matters, as long as the prices are low enough, and it tastes good enough, no one will care.
Both Bong and Ronson are equal opportunity offenders with their jabs, though. Their script pokes fun at the more noble forces at work in Okja. When Lucy’s minions pack up the giant pig for her journey, a fanatical animal rights group called the Animal Liberation Front (a real-life group) intervenes to use Okja for their own propaganda purposes. On the sillier side, the movie treats some of the members as merely buffoonish. One member refuses to eat, well, anything. He believes that factory farming of vegetables is a corrupt and disgusting system, and he refuses to participate in it. On a more serious note, ALF’s plans for Okja raise serious ethical questions about the ends justifying the means, and what the group is prepared to put the innocent animal through in order to raise public awareness of their cause.
Bong seems to delight in getting unhinged performances from his actors. This is his second collaboration with Tilda Swinton, who pulls double duty as both Lucy and Nancy Mirando. She was brilliant as the nefarious Minister Mason in his last picture, Snowpiercer. In Okja, Swinton is at her neurotic best. Lucy is crazed by her need to outshine her sister, which makes her prepared to do whatever is necessary to make the company successful.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is less inspiring. He plays Dr. Johnny Wilcox, a peculiar zoologist whose claim to fame is Animal Planet style TV shows. Lucy has chosen Dr. Wilcox to judge the superpig competition, and to be the face of the Mirando Corporation’s entire superpig initiative. Bong’s style may encourage his actors to enjoy free reign, but with Gyllenhaal, some limitations might have been just what the actor needed. His performance is arch, to say the least. Think Steve Irwin, the late nature expert known as The Crocodile Hunter, on speed, mean-spirited, and chronically sleep deprived. Gyllenhaal threatens to derail the entire movie with his antics, but Okja is too strong otherwise to allow it.
Much of that strength comes from the emotional center of the film, Ahn Seo-hyun as Mija, a young girl who refuses to stop fighting for her best friend. Ahn relays Mija’s dedication to Okja almost entirely through action. She is relentless in her quest to bring the giant pig back home, and the determination written all over Ahn’s face throughout most of the movie is heart-warming. It’s even more impressive when we consider the young actress had to convey these emotions with a creature that only exists in a computer.
Last week, I pompously wrote about the proper way to use computer generated effects. It should be primarily used to enhance the little things, I wrote, and rarely works when attempting to bring giant beasts to life. Well, the movie gods have seen fit to chastise me. The digital effects team on Okja proved me wrong. This giant pig looks and feels real. The expressive eyes, which transmit different emotions throughout, showcase the care the animators put into their creation. The emotionally pulverizing climax that takes place in an abattoir will make even the most enthusiastic meat-eaters rethink their diets. It’s a powerful feat, considering the filmmakers achieved all of this using nothing but carefully selected ones and zeros.
Bong Joon-ho visited a Colorado slaughterhouse while doing research for Okja. The experience turned him into a vegan for two months. Eventually, the siren smells of barbeque – a South Korean specialty – worked its magic on him. There are probably a lot of people who would delight in calling Bong a hypocrite, considering the message and content of Okja. That would be misguided, though. The director’s intent was to make an honest representation of the process that fuels our meat-obsessed, capitalistic culture, albeit through fantastical means. He said to do otherwise would have been a disservice to the movie. There’s nothing wrong with opening your eyes to perspectives you’ve never considered, even if it doesn’t change your world view completely, or for the rest of your life. Those kinds of experiences are some of what the movies do best, and Okja is a superb example of it.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Gyllenhaal's distracting performance aside, Okja is damn near flawless movie making. Netflix should be proud of presenting such a touching film. The audience at Cannes (where Okja premiered) booed when the Netflix logo appeared on the screen. It's an understandable reaction to a company they see as a competitor. In their view, Netflix is trying to kill the movie theater experience, which is something I hold very near and dear to my own heart. If the streaming company continues to support art as rewarding as Okja, though, they will be much harder to dismiss.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- My partner, Rachel, often pokes fun at me for reflexively defending a person when someone else in a conversation starts to disparage that person. I'll do that to myself now. Jake Gyllenhaal's performance in Okja was a failure for me, but I do generally respect his acting abilities and choices. His work in Brokeback Mountain, Zodiac, and especially Nightcrawler (seriously, have you seen Nightcrawler yet? If not, do it now) is all excellent.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
Next week, I'll be looking at The Big Sick, the new romantic comedy directed by Michael Showalter (who also wrote one of my all-time favorite comedies, Wet Hot American Summer), and written by real-life husband and wife team Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon.