After the roundabout route his previous film, Snowpiercer, took to cinemas outside Korea, Bong Joon Ho’s latest, Okja comes to exclusively to Netflix this week. Iain McNally checks out how it stacks up against The Host and the post apocalyptic Snowpiercer.
Alternating between more grounded fare (Memories of Murder, Mother) and the fantastical, Bong Joon Ho has been a director I’ve kept an eye out for ever since he defied monster movie cliche’s in 2006’s The Host. Eschewing the conventional wisdom to keep your monster hidden until the climax, The Host revealed it’s gangly creature in it’s full glory, galloping through a park in broad daylight, right in the middle of the film. That he followed that sequence with an unexpectedly thoughtful and tragic family story, only cemented his reputation in my, and many others, eyes.
While the creature at the heart of Okja may be just as big, this is much more a kindhearted fable, albeit one with some very dark veins running through it.
Okja is a giant “super pig”, a type supposedly discovered in Chile, before being bred by the Mirando corporation. She looks a lot more like a hippo than a pig. One of twenty six “super piglets”, Okja and her siblings are sent to top farmers around the world to be raised ethically for 10 years before returning for Mirando’s “best super-pig competition”. After which, Mirando plans to launch a whole line of meat based products off Okja and her brethren.
Okja spends her ten years in Korea, bonding with Mija, the granddaughter of her caretaker and firce defender of Okja, who will stop at nothing to save the now super massive (and pretty smart) pig from Mirando.
While it may share some themes with children’s classics like Free Willy or Charlotte’s Web, Okja is a far more off kilter affair. A fun adventure for the most part, at times it veers into outright farce, as well as venturing into much, much darker territory.
Band of Morons
Okja is never predictable as new obstacles, allies and enemies are constantly thrown at Mija as she tries to rescue Okja. While never making fun of Mija or her plight, Boon Joon Ho does populate her world with an entertaining cast of misfits and weirdos, from insecure CEO’s to wacky TV biologists, and a troupe of Monty Pythonesque animal rights activists.
As Mija, Seo-Hyun Ahn is a force of nature at the centre of the film. While some of the special effects may not quite work (at least in the preview copy I saw) you never doubt Mija’s love and devotion to Okja.
Following on from her almost unrecognisable performance in Snowpiercer, Tilda Swinton returns to provide a slightly more sympathetic loony this time as Lucy Mirando. The beleaguered head of the Mirando corporation, it’s never quite clear how honest her attempts to redeem her company’s image are, as she frets over whether or not she’s well liked, personally. Giancarlo Esposito also turns up in small but crucial role as one of Lucy’s handlers.
Cool it, Jake
While Swinton may have toned down her performance from Snowpiercer, Jake Gyllenhaal takes up the slack as the wild eyed and occasionally high pitched TV biologist, Johnny Wilcox. The previous “face” of the Mirando corporation he’s frequently ridiculous, with his retro moustache and khaki shorts. While Gyllenhaal definitely delivers, it’s not too clear what he’s delivering, as he often gives in to fits of high pitched squealing.
Helping and hindering Mija in equal measure are Paul Dano’s absurd Animal Liberation Front, whose members include Lily Collins and The Walking Dead’s Steven Yuen. Despite giving the impression of being useful allies, the A.L.F.’s effectiveness is underscored by their absurdity. Some of the funniest scenes feature the A.L.F. trying to balance their principles with the vigilante actions they need to take (they refuse to harm anyone and so repeatedly tell everyone this while attacking them…gently).
That’ll do pig, that’ll do
Despite its cast of misguided fools and oversized pig creature, Okja pulls no punches when it comes to the realities of the meat production industry as well as the horrors inflicted by people who have nothing lose. The super pig is super cute, but not in an overly sentimental way and is realised well enough that when absolutely terrible things happen to her (and they do) it’s harrowing to watch and some scenes near the end should reduce the most hardened meat lovers to tears.
There are a couple of scenes that should definitely not be watched with kids in the room.
As I’m sure is the directors intention, Okja will likely result in more than a few vegetarian conversions, while others should at the very least start to question where exactly the meat on their plate actually comes from and how it got there. That this message is wrapped up in the touching and entertaining tale of a girl and her pig is a testament to the skill of the director.
Okja is available to stream on Netflix now.
Starring: An Seo Hyun, Tilda Swinton, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal, Byun Heebong, Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins
Directed by: Bong Joon Ho
Official Site here.