Film

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.


Okja

Director: Bong Joon Ho
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, An Seo Hyun
Rated: NR
Writer: Bong Joon Ho, Jon Ronson
Year: 2017
US Release date: 2017-06-28
Website
Trailer

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

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.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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