Korea/US (2017) Dir. Bong Joon-ho
Having pulled off the impossible by being an Asian director to actually make a decent film in the US with 2013’s Snowpiercer Bong Jong-ho tries his luck again with this savage satire on capitalist greed, the commercial food industry and animal cruelty.
In 2007, the awkward CEO of agrochemical company Mirando Corporation Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) is keen to change the negative image of the company incurred by her father and twin sister Nancy. She publicly announces a new initiative to send 26 newly bred “super pigs” to farmers across the globe and in ten years time, the prettiest one will be crowned in a gala presentation.
A decade later, the best pig is living in the mountains of South Korea. Named Okja, she has been reared by 14 year-old Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her grandfather Hee-Bong (Byun Hee-bong). When representatives from Mirando pay a visit, Mija is unaware that they are taking Okja back to the US to be slaughtered for food. Learning they are stopping over in Seoul first, Mija launches her own rescue campaign.
Despite the stirring and provocative message that drives it, Okja isn’t a film that takes itself seriously, making the impact of its caustic thrust all the more effective. Usually something smaller and cuter, like a puppy or a kitten would be the animal of choice to maximise audience investment, not a giant flatulent pig/hippo hybrid that produces projectile faeces!
But Bong Joon-ho is deliberately aiming big since his target is one the biggest industries in the world, or rather the ethics behind its treatment of livestock. Okja may not be the most instantly loveable creature to grace the screen but she is sentient being and her affectionate relationship with Mija is as genuine as if they were two of the same kind. That alone makes Okja an unquestionable sympathetic protagonist.
The satire is laid on pretty thick, manifest through the ludicrously self-unaware corporate characters who thrive on money and public adoration. Lucy Mirando may have delusions of altruism but is gauche personified, not to mention paranoid, insecure and feckless. Among her coterie is washed up TV presenter and zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), a booze-fuelled clown never seen without his tight jungle shorts.
Acting as the totem of goodness and purity, Mija’s rustic upbringing and organic vegetarian diet makes her naïve about the real reason some animals are bred. Unfortunately, Mija’s grandfather was fully aware of the deal but since he couldn’t buy Okja, he bought a solid gold pig he hoped Mija would accept as a substitute in Okja’s absence.
Hereinafter Bong’s compromising to his US producers becomes obvious beginning with Mija’s remarkably energetic chase through Seoul to catch up with the truck transporting Okja to the airport. Miraculously timed leaps onto the top of the truck while in transit, to death-defying Bond-style hanging from the back door, Mija is one resilient 14 year-old girl.
In all fairness, the chase is highly entertaining and this is a comedy drama, so we cut him some slack. Offering similar amusement is the group of Animal Liberation front (ALF) warriors who save Okja and Mija from her captors. Lead by smooth talking Jay (Paul Dano) the Alf in fact plan to use Okja to expose the cruelty of Mirando but only gets Mija’s blessing when translator K (Steven Yeun) deliberately misinterprets her answer.
The ALF are made up of mostly white folk with one female (Lily Collins) and K being the sole minority because Hollywood. Even the streets of Seoul conveniently have plenty of westerners walking around, whilst all of the workers at the slaughterhouse are Mexican. One hopes this was an allegorical part of the satire and not just a lazy way to promote diversity.
Just as Bong and co-writer, British journalist Jon Ronson hit a cynical high with the accurately louche crescendo of the parade, perfectly capturing the clueless extravagance of a typically tacky US celebration event, the bubble is burst with an almighty bang, as the reality of Okja’s fate is laid bare. A violent prelude marks the change in tone but Bong refuses to allow cheap sentimentality to intrude on this upsetting final act.
Some people Bong did manage to upset were the folks at Cannes this year, because of Okja being a production of online streaming channel Netflix. The jury were split as to whether this made it eligible for competition while audiences booed the Netflix logo. Then a SNAFU occurred when it was screened with the incorrect picture ratio but once it finished, it received a four-minute standing ovation.
Okja herself is a comical beast but one with a heart and if she does rampage it is not through benevolence but fear and duress. Undoubtedly a CGI creation the blend between Okja and the live cast is seamless, and if there wasn’t a physical animatronic stand in on set for some shots then the interactions are the best ever seen.
Young Ahn Seo-hyun is absolutely a star in the making, from the convincing way she works with Okja to her already mature emotional range. As the one character not a caricature or comic foil, she is one-half of the film’s beating heart with Okja. Of the big US names, Jake Gyllenhaal shows early promise as the obnoxious Dr. Johnny but suddenly goes into full parody mode, sacrificing the subtly of his portrayal.
Solidifying her reputation as a human chameleon, Tilda Swinton is just too perfect as Lucy Mirando, from the little twitches of self-doubt to her petulant outbursts. Then there is her other role as Nancy, the evil twin for whom money is God and sentiment is for the weak.
Perhaps not quite reaching the dizzy heights of Bong’s domestic hits like The Host or Memories Of Murder there is little doubt that Okja sees him at the height of his powers with this children’s adventure tale laced with trenchant social commentary. And stick around after the credits for an amusing coda.
Rating – ****
Man In Black