Okja (2017; Bong Joon Ho)
By Daniel Barnes
“High-Energy Genre Subversion”
More high-energy genre subversion from South Korean writer-director Bong Joon Ho (Snowpierecer; The Host; Memories of Murder), who this time uses a Spielberg-ian children’s fantasy template to bluntly satirize issues related to animal rights, environmental destruction and corporate greed. Just imagine a more politically engaged E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial combined with a more action-oriented My Neighbor Totoro, only in this version the magical creatures get brutally raped by much larger and scarier magical creatures while animal rights activists watch on a webcam feed.
Snowpiercer supporting player Tilda Swinton gets a Co-Producer credit here, and a plum part as the CEO of a Monsanto-like conglomerate (as in Hail, Caesar!, Swinton also plays her own twin sister), but its Jake Gyllenhaal who delivers the biggest, broadest deal-breaker of a comedic performance in Okja. Squawking like a strangled clown, sporting Michael Medved’s mustache and flapping about in your dad’s cargo shorts and black crew socks combination, Gyllenhaal plays Dr. Johnny Wilcox, a fading TV star and the public face of the Mirando Corporation.
In an entrancing prologue, Swinton’s Lucy Mirando announces an international competition to grow the biggest and tastiest Superpig, a new breed of animal engineered in the Mirando labs, and so they send Superpiglets to respected farmers across the globe.
“Tonal and Thematic Chaos”
Ten years later in South Korea, a self-aware Superpig named Okja has grown to remarkable proportions, traipsing through the woods with the farmer’s granddaughter Mija (An Seo Hyun) like a Studio Ghibli creation come to CGI life. When Dr. Johnny and the rest of the Mirando stooges come to collect the Superpig, Mija chases them to Seoul and then to America, becoming a viral sensation in the process.
Okja offers a lot of the same elements that made Snowpiercer so successful, but it misses that film’s irrefutable narrative progression, especially in an out-of-control second half. The film finally lands on an incredibly beautiful final shot, albeit one that feels divorced from the previous hour of tonal and thematic chaos. If nothing else, Okja makes for an interesting anti-“kids movie” double feature with My Life as a Zucchini.