Brash and Playful ‘Okja’ is the Summer’s Activist Epic
Bong Joon Ho’s uneven but still electrifying caper about a little girl and her giant pig on the run from villainous Tilda Swinton swirls a sharp dose of slapstick comedy into its pop satirical narrative.
South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho has said that Netflix, the distributor of his new movie Okja, gave him final cut. That’s easy to believe. Because most studios, having spent some $50-odd million on a movie mostly about the relationship between a spunky young girl and her gentle giant pig, would have serious issues with the dark curve balls that Boon throws into a story thrumming with such strong, box office-friendly child-creature empathy. But Netflix is charting its own path in the current chaotic state of theatrical movies and for now, part of that means letting an artist like Boon do just what the hell he wants. (This open-wallet policy also means Netflix bankrolling the likes of Adam Sandler for now, but that’s for a different time.) Given what’s on screen in Okja, this is a welcome development.
The heart of Okja is the love between the titular “super pig”, a big grey pig-like creature the size of a subcompact car with floppy Snoopy ears and sad eyes, and Mija (An Seo Hyun), the young Korean girl who’s raised him from a piglet. The two spend their days gamboling in the woods, coming home only when her crotchety grandfather announces dinner via the porch-mounted loudspeaker at their mountaintop home.
Due to An’s spry and tough way with her character and the understated realism of Okja’s CGI (the animation is seamless and fluid, with little of the attention-gathering flourishes that distract with so much modern CGI), these establishing scenes are more charming than expected. We know the idyll is doomed to end, after the manic credits montage in which arrested development corporate tycoon Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton, all nerves and braces) announces her plan for a “Super Pig” breeding contest that has creatures like Okja scattered across the planet as part of a brazenly obvious stab at greenwashing the family firm’s slimy reputation. But it’s testament to Boon’s easy command of the material that Mija and Okja’s time together in the forest is compelling enough on its own, like some never-seen Hiyao Miyazaki movie.
Once Okja is announced as the winner in the Super Pig contest, the Mirando corporate machinery grinds into motion, regardless of whether Mija wants to keep her expensive genetically engineered friend at home. After the company’s cynical TV host Dr. Johnny Wilcox (a frantically mugging Jake Gyllenhaal) shows up to hustle Okja off to New York to be feted like some gentle porcine take on King Kong, Mija’s cause looks doomed. This even though she shows more spunk than a box set of Disney princesses (she has no problem, for instance, in hurling herself through a glass wall if she thinks Okja is on the other side). That’s where the animal rights activists come in, providing some of the movie’s best and most problematic moments.
Boon generates sublimely orchestrated comic chaos out of a chase scene involving Okja, Mija, some clueless Mirando flacks, and a cell of those activists looking to free Okja. Led by the gently authoritative Jay (Paul Dano), the activists are so deeply committed to a non-cruelty lifestyle that their skinniest member refuses to eat even a tomato (“all food is exploitation!”). Without undercutting the emotional stakes of the chase’s outcome, Boon finds plenty of room in it for fantastically loony moments like a slow-motion fight scene involving umbrellas and tranquilizer darts scored to John Denver’s “Annie’s Song”.
Seo-Hyun Ahn as Mija
Unfortunately, Boon almost peaks at that moment. The movie turns darker once it transitions to New York; not surprising given the suspicion toward America Boon showed in The Host. This raises the stakes well past where a studio might have wanted to soft-pedal the story’s true nature. What that means is that the graphically violent reality of the Mirando company’s plan for Okja and her like is shown in full, hellishly bloody detail; one particularly disturbing scene is enough reason for many parents to not consider this appropriate children’s fare.
Given the dark turn after the movie’s halfway point, Boon has trouble juggling the moods. The New York-set scenes continue the caper angle around Okja’s role as captive symbol of Mirando’s cynical marketing ploy about presenting a friendlier face of genetically-modified food. But the activists’ earnestness and Mija’s stricken sadness has a difficult time aligning with the slapstick tone that Boon keeps interjecting. Although Gyllenhaal’s squeaky-voiced clowning and Swinton’s lockjaw anxiety are successful in and of themselves, their tone looks increasingly out of place in a story that keeps veering toward corporate satire and away from the central relationship of Mija and Okja.
Like Snowpiercer, Okja has an audacious and idea-littered daring about it that is difficult to resist. But Boon is a filmmaker who probably thrives best in more bottled-up scenarios. That’s why Okja feels so much more confident in its Korea-set scenes, when the kidnap and rescue set-up is taut and dramatic. By comparison, once the movie arrives in New York and the part-playful and part-serious script (by Boon with an assist from Jon Ronson) starts digging into the nefarious doings of Mirando, the air leaks out of its sails a bit. Fortunately, by that point, the verve and pulse of Boon’s fairy-tale romanticism and crisply tailored comedy had built up so much speed that it can easily carry the movie through.
It’s possible that a different studio could have made Boon hack Okja into a more streamlined creation about a cutely gentle giant of an animal, the girl who loves her, and the mean executives out to tear them apart. But there are plenty of filmmakers out there who could make movies like that. There aren’t any making three-ring-circus satires about corporate hypocrisy, genetically modified food, and what the fate of a giant pig says about humanity.